MTFU and the Nurture Effect

by Ryan Sain


So much good happening everyday [sic] becoming hard to see anything else!” – Bobby C. Howe, MTFU member


Selection. A simple term with immense implications. Species are selected for based on their individual ability to function in their world. Our behaviors are selected for based on the function they serve in our lives. The third level of selection, and the focus of this article, is how culture is selected for.


Cultures don’t change randomly. Culture is a collection of behaviors commonly performed by a group of connected people; often geographically, politically, socially, economically, etc. Those patterns of behavior change over time; wearing bell bottoms, saying “rad”, wearing red on Sunday, become skinny jeans, “legit”, and plaid 18 years later. The change is not as random as it seems. Why? Because behavior is selected for, chosen, by those around you, by your world. Someone sees a skinny jean and says “that’s soooo me”, wears it, rocks it, and is imitated or copied by others. If enough people engage in similar behavior, then you’ll notice the change culturally. That exact point is known as the tipping point – the point at which an uncommon action becomes common.


It wasn’t three months into my membership to the MTFU Facebook group that I saw what was happening. I saw an environment where the behavior of caring for your fellow human was and is being actively selected for. When people engage in good deeds for community members (see other stories in this issue) it is immediately recognized and lauded. What Chris Morse set up was an environment where it is permissible to admit your good deeds – and be reinforced for doing them. As opposed to punished for talking about them. It is magical to behold.


What I saw was an environment that nurtured doing good for the community in which you live – and doing it well. Men in the group organically organize around a cause that is espoused by a member. The men then encourage each other to get involved (prompting), then get involved themselves (modeling), then request others to join them (establish motivation), then support each other in doing the good work (reinforcement), then congratulate each other when done (more reinforcement). Those that aren’t able to participate unequivocally support and congratulate those that did (even more reinforcement). The cycle described is selection in action.


I immediately thought that MTFU is a sort of virtually organized, physical performance of Dr. Anthony Biglan’s book “The Nurture Effect: How the Science of Human Behavior Can Improve our Lives and Our World”. Or even a chapter from B.F. Skinner’s “Walden 2”. Those involved with MTFU inherently understand that to increase the good in this world you need to support it. You need to reinforce it. To reinforce (strengthen) good behavior the behavior has to happen first. So doing good well is modeled, encouraged, and discussed – openly and frequently. MTFU is a virtual environment of more than 50,000 men that encourages other men to do things in their local world to help another human, and then to reinforce each other when they do.


As a behavioral scientist, it’s hard to describe the level of excitement I felt when I realized what I was seeing. What Chris and the men of MTFU have done is establish a tool that aligns beautifully with the science of human behavior. Further, I witnessed them implementing change with fidelity and with success. In short, the principles that MTFU were founded on are right out of the most current science on behavior and culture change. I realized I was watching culture change in action. The best part for me is that the world selected a set of behaviors in Chris that in turn served to open the door for others to do good well. The spiral of positivity is catching and it’s addicting. Read the opening quote by Bobby C. Howe again.


If we see good all around us, we will do good more often. Culture is changing. Will you be the person who triggers the tipping point for doing good to become the norm? I hope so.


Ryan Sain, Ph.D., Scientist and Humanist
I graduated from Mead back when there was only one high school in the district. I then attended Spokane Community College and eventually transferred to Eastern Washington University. After I earned my degree in Applied Developmental Psychology I attended Washington State University for my masters and doctoral work. I focused on Applied Behavior Analysis and the science of human behavior. Later, I was the Deputy Director for Global Networks at the Center to Bridge the Digital Divide at WSU where I did international grant work in the context of university systems and degree programs. I returned to my roots as a faculty member at EWU for 7 years and am now employed at Northwest Autism Center.



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