Reinforcement: An Overview


The Art of Giving People What They Want

Reinforcement is simply put as doing something that encourages the behavior to happen again next time. In more scientific terms, operant conditioning believes that the consequences to a behavior can be used to control how often the behavior occurs. If the behavior leads to a pleasant outcome, then the behavior is highly likely to happen again. The act of making a behavior more likely to occur again is reinforcement. 

The pleasant outcome is called a “reinforcer” cause it raises the chances of a behavior happening again. Reinforcers can be almost anything; all that matters for something to be a reinforcer is if the subject likes it enough that they will do a behavior for it.  

If you’re trying to modify anyone (or anything’s) behavior, then an understanding of reinforcement is the best place to begin. 

How To Check For Reinforcers

One of the best parts of behavioral science is that you can immediately apply these concepts and then see if it’s working. For reinforcers, check for these points to make sure what you’re using is indeed a reinforcer:

  1. A reinforcer must be something your subject is willing to work for. If your subject is showing an increase in behaviors or is just plain interested in the object in question, then you can move on and check for #2.
  2. Whenever the object in question is given to the subject, the behaviors occur more often. After you’ve given the reinforcer to the subject, do you notice that they are more willing to do the same behavior next time?

Primary vs Secondary Reinforcers


Reinforcers can be broken down into two categories: primary reinforcers and secondary reinforcers.

Primary reinforcers are things the subject needs. They tend to be biological, so things like food, water, happiness, or pleasure are all primary reinforcers.

Secondary reinforcers are objects that have been conditioned into the subject and can lead to primary reinforcers. A click, whistle, or any number of objects you’ve paired with a primary reinforcer in the past can act as a secondary reinforcer. 

The best example of this distinction is money. The cash you work for is a secondary reinforcer; money allows you to buy food, drink, and every other primary reinforcer under the sun. The behavior that’s being reinforced is you working and contributing to society.  In summary, society has conditioned us to view money as the ultimate reinforcer, however, without that conditioning, money is just bits of funny smelling cotton-paper.

For an example regarding dogs, the sound a clicker makes is a secondary reinforcer. A click doesn’t inherently mean anything to a dog until you teach it that the click means “good job, you earned food.” Food, on the other hand, is a primary reinforcer to both dogs and people.   

A Small Problem With Reinforcers

Two of the hardest parts of using reinforcers is when the reinforcer itself is bad for the subject and when a behavior is self-reinforcing.

Reinforcers that are bad for your subject can be seen in cases with drug addiction. To people addicted to these substances, that drug is the ultimate reinforcer. If you’re trying to solve for their addiction problem, then using their addicted substance would not be the best way to fix their addiction. Reinforcement can still be used here, but you would have to find an alternative reinforcer and reinforce behaviors that don’t involve the substance.

Alternatively, when a behavior is self-reinforcing, it can be hard to break it just because the behavior is maintaining itself. An example of this would be when your pet decides it wants to destroy your pillow. The act of destroying your pillow is already fun for the animal, and there’s a chance they may do it again if you left the behavior the way it is. Reinforcement can still be used, but it will be far less effective. Giving them a toy and reinforcing them for going for the toy instead of your pillow can only take you so far. The best course of action here is simply to apply a punishment (which we’ll go over later), so that, while it is reinforcing for them to destroy your pillow, you as the trainer can make sure it does not remain reinforcing.

Speaking of punishments however…

Positive And Negative: It’s Not What You Think

There are two ways you can reinforce a behavior: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. While both of these kinds of reinforcement will be discussed in detail in their own articles, I want to give an overview of what each of them are because of the absurd amount of misconception that follows the phrases “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement.”

People tend to hear “positive reinforcement” and assume it means giving/doing good things in order to get your subject to do what you want, or coddling someone so that they are more nice to you and more willing to do what you say. In comparison, people assume “negative reinforcement” is doing bad things to your subject in order to get them to do what you want; some people see it as a sense of “tough love.”

I just want to clarify that those definitions are completely wrong.

When behaviorists talk about positive and negative, they don’t mean positive feelings or negative feelings. What they mean by positive or negative is the addition or subtraction of something. Because of how important this is, I’m just going to repeat that sentence. In regards to behavior, negative and positive have nothing to do with emotions, feelings, the morality of what you’re doing, or what others think about what you’re doing. Negative and Positive simply involve the subtraction or addition of something.  

Positive reinforcement is the addition of a reinforcer as a consequence of a target behavior. So if your dog sits, or does another behavior you like, then giving him a treat after he does the behavior would be positive reinforcement – you added a reinforcer.

Negative reinforcement is the subtraction of an aversive (something the subject doesn’t like) as a consequence of a target behavior. Subtraction in this sense can include avoiding, stopping, or removing an aversive. In fact, most of our behaviors are maintained through negative reinforcement. The simplest example of this is what happens when your cell phone rings. It creates a ring tone that will not stop until you answer it. So in order to make it stop ringing, you answer it; you have now subtracted the aversive ringtone from your situation and thus, are more likely to pick up the phone next time.

A broader example would be how we treat laws. We follow laws because we want to avoid the punishment that happens when we break a law. That avoidance behavior is being negatively reinforced because, by following the laws, we avoid the aversive stimulus of the police and other punishers that follow when a law is broken.

Why Learn About Reinforcement?

I’ve had a lot of people over the years tell me that behaviorism is absolutely pointless. For dogs, alpha theory remains the predominant point of view, why change it? For humans, it’s the belief that with enough will power, you can do anything. Why add training wheels to yourself? 

If you sat down and learned how reinforcement alone works, then here are two immediate benefits you would gain:

    1. You figure out what is keeping a behavior going. People and animals don’t normally just do things for the sake of doing them. There is a form of reinforcement, something that they gain out of the act, that keeps the behavior going. Knowing about reinforcement allows you to identify what is making someone behave the way they are in a given moment and why they may behave like that again in the future. At its most basic, knowing reinforcement helps you empathize with what they’re doing, and at its best, reinforcement helps you understand how to help.

    2. Identifying the reinforcer provides you a tool to manipulate their behavior. Once you understand what the reinforcer is, you can now manipulate it. You could provide a reinforcer to the subject when a behavior you like is performed, remove the reinforcement they would receive when the behavior is performed, or even provide a reinforcer for an alternative behavior to name a few options.

An example of manipulating reinforcement is if your dog is barking at the mailman and you realize the reinforcer is that the mailman runs away. Now you know what maintains that behavior and how to break it. In this case, you’re going to have to intervene by telling your dog to sit and be quiet when the mailman is nearby. You’ll have to ask the Mailman if they can stand there until the dog calms down, then reinforce when the dog is silent, and have the mailman walk away. If done enough times, your dog should begin to associate staying calm (the behavior you want) with the mailman leaving (the reinforcer). While I don’t always recommend taking this approach to solving a barking problem, it is just an example of how your understanding of reinforcement can be used to control a problem behavior.

A Final Word

Now that you know what reinforcers are, you can keep an eye out for how each of these are being used on you in your daily life. You’ll be amazed at how many behaviors you have that are maintained by a schedule of positive and negative reinforcers.

But just to make sure that you are aware, reinforcement alone is nowhere near effective enough for behavior modification at times. Pairing reinforcement with punishment is going to be the best way to see fast and lasting changes in your subject. This is why I cringe a little when people say “positive training” instead of “operant conditioning.” Positive reinforcement training implies that you’re only using positive reinforcement, while operant conditioning implies you’re using both (you know, the way it was meant to be).

My next two posts will cover both positive and negative reinforcers in more detail to help you use them in your daily life. After that, I will cover punishments to help you understand what punishment is and why it’s useful and dangerous at the same time.



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