The four consequences that shape behavior
There are only four consequences of behavior. When you act one of four things will happen to you. They are:
- You will get something you want. This is called positive reinforcement (R+).
- You will avoid or escape something you don’t want. This is called negative reinforcement (R-).
- You will get something you don’t want. This is called punishment (P+) or penalty (P-).
- You won’t get what you want (i.e. nothing happens). This is called extinction (X).
#1 and #2 increase behavior. When these occur after, or during, behavior the behavior increases in frequency.
#3 and #4 decrease behavior. When these occur after, or during, behavior the behavior decreases in frequency.
The most effective consequence.
Of the four consequences the most powerful, most effective, most useful is positive reinforcement (R+). This is the method we will be learning. Allow me here to discuss the other three consequences before we move on.
To increase with a negative.
Negative reinforcement is “do it or else.” You do something to avoid or escape an unpleasant consequence. The mother in my last post was using negative reinforcement to get her son to come in for supper. If Billy had not complied at the third request he would have had to pay a price (e.g. grounded, no television, made to do dishes). Since he didn’t want any trouble he went home, finally.
Negative reinforcement is the most common consequence meted out. That’s a shame. The behavior shaped this way is always going to be just enough to avoid the punishment. All it takes is for the “threat” to be withdrawn and the behavior will revert to what it had been.
Take as an example the change that occurs when a negatively reinforcing boss walks among his employees. Suddenly everybody is quietly working, all looks well. As soon as he’s gone the employees relax doing just enough that they don’t get fired.
Why? Because they don’t get reinforced for doing a good job. They don’t even exist until they do something wrong. When a mistake is made the boss pounces on them. Since the only feedback they can receive is negative they quietly go about their work but never volunteer any extra effort.
Stop that, right now!
Punishment is also common but its intent is different. Punishment is used to decrease the frequency of a behavior.
One of the main problems with punishment is that stopping one behavior does not make a better behavior take its place. If you slap a child’s hand as he is about to unwittingly stick a key into an electrical socket the child may stop trying to stick keys in there. But he may simply move from keys to a fork or just make sure that you are not around before he tries it again.
Another thing punishment does is damage the relationship. Whether you are the one receiving the punishment or the one doling it out a new dynamic is introduced. The repercussions may be detrimental to everyone.
Penalty is technically considered a separate consequence. It differs in that instead of “giving” something undesired (e.g. a disapproving frown: P+) to stop a behavior a penalty entails “taking” something away (e.g. grounding or reducing a child’s allowance by 25%: P-) to stop the behavior. This is such a fine line for the lay-behaviorist that I find it easier to think of them as one and the same.
Extinction: not just for dinosaurs.
Finally, extinction is what happens to a behavior when you don’t get what you want. This is what happens to the eager employee’s voluntary effort after no one at all reinforces that behavior. He soon learns that working harder than everyone else brings no requisite rewards, other than self-satisfaction. When you do something and get nothing out of it the intelligent thing to do is to stop doing it. And that’s what hardworking employees are being taught by unwitting bosses all the time.
Extinction is a natural consequence of behaviors that are being replaced by another, more desirable behavior. That’s why you should always come up with alternate behaviors when you break a bad habit. It’s generally not effective to just stop an unwanted behavior (e.g. smoking, chewing fingernails, swearing). A much better strategy is to replace it with an incompatible behavior. The original “bad” habit is replaced and extinction is the consequence.
R+? Yep. I’m positive.
Our focus will be on positive reinforcement. Of all the consequences it is the only one that’s positive. It feels good. It’s fun. It brings out the best in everyone.
Billy’s mother could try some positive reinforcement. Every time he comes the first time he’s called she could let him have his favorite dessert after supper. Billy loves apple pie so this might work. If not she’ll have to find something else. Once she finds an appropriate positive consequence Billy will be glad to come in for supper. He may even show up early.