William & Mary

Dr. Phil for Credit

  • Overcoming Road Rage
    Overcoming Road Rage  After six weeks of listening to relaxing music on the stereo, deep breathing at stop signs, over correction, and the pressure to have a successful behavior modification project, her friends were ready to ride shotgun again.  
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Sure, William & Mary students are dangerously close to perfect. They’ve got the grades, the pitch-perfect a cappella voices and the wicked ping-pong serve. But even the beautiful and brainy have some nagging flaws—skipping the salad bar for the sundae bar, chewing fingernails, leaving the seat up—that stand in the way of absolute infallibility.

For those in the mood for self-improvement, Professor of Psychology Janice Zeman’s Behavior Modification class is like Dr. Phil for credit. In the first half of the semester, students study standard therapeutic behavior modification techniques—reward systems, applying contingencies, adaptive behavior substitution, exposure therapies, cognitive restructuring—and learn how to quantify progress through research and analysis.

Then the real fun begins. For the last six weeks of class, the students become their own research subjects and their own behavioral therapists. Zeman asks each student to choose a not-so-good habit they want to rectify. Recent examples include swearing too much, not exercising enough, road rage, poor dental hygiene, drinking too much caffeine and chronic tardiness to class.

The students then apply the behavior modification techniques they learned in the first half of the semester on themselves, while meticulously recording their progress (or regress, as it were) on a daily basis.

The swearing project was particularly effective, says Zeman. “[The student] ended up dividing her swear words into all sorts of categories,” Zeman explains. “She would recruit her roommates to help her keep tabs on how many times she said a word. Then she would use a token economy system to reward herself at the end of the week.”

The road rage student was so bad that her friends refused to drive with her. “Apparently she would just rant and rave the whole time and she and her passengers would be a wreck by the time she finally got to her destination,” says Zeman.

The student used therapeutic techniques like “overcorrection,” where after she caught herself screaming at a careless driver, she would then have to quietly say 15 nice things about the other driver to herself.  After six weeks of listening to relaxing music on the stereo, deep breathing at stop signs, overcorrection, and the pressure to have a successful project, her friends were ready to ride shotgun again.

At the end of the semester, students analyze their six weeks of self-assessment data using statistical packages and present their results in a research paper written in APA (American Psychological Association) style and in a conference poster format to their fellow classmates.

“It’s this really nice integration of behavioral theory with application, plus their previous book knowledge of research methodology and statistics comes alive,” says Zeman, who’s been teaching the course for all three of her years at W&M. 

“Of course,” she adds, “I don’t know if these effects were maintained or not after the class ended.” We can only hope so.