This article by Leanne Page, MEd, BCBA, was originally published at bSci21.org

“Dear Behavior BFF, I have read many of your articles and it sounds to me like you just want us all to bribe our kids to behave. How exactly does that use science in parenting? Are you saying bribery is a good thing?!”

I can’t even tell you how many times positive reinforcement has been incorrectly compared to bribery.  Let’s look at this in a few ways: by definition and a real-life example.

The definition of positive reinforcement is “when a behavior is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus that increases the future frequency of the behavior” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).  Reinforcers follow a behavior.

A bribe is  “something that serves to induce or influence” (Merriam-webster) and bribery means  “to influence or corrupt by a bribe” (Dictionary.com). Bribes typically are offered/ happen before a behavior occurs.

Positive reinforcement focuses on building up desired behaviors, there is no corruption of anything or anyone involved. Bribery often happens in the moment to induce a child to stop engaging in a problem behavior. This does not build up desired behaviors in any way. In fact, it likely inadvertently reinforces a problem behavior.

Another distinct difference in the two: you reinforce a behavior. You bribe a person.

With positive reinforcement, we are focusing on those desired behaviors. We are not trying to change a person, influence their personality, or corrupt them.

You reinforce a behavior. You bribe a person.

How about a real-life example?

A three- year old is having problem behaviors at bedtime included screaming, yelling, refusal to follow directions and loud crying.

A system is in place using the Premack Principle: If you go to bed nicely, you may watch a show in the morning.

The mom finishes stories, tucks the child in and walks to the door.

Mom: Good night. I love you.
Child: One more story!!!
Mom: Stories are done. Go to bed nicely so you can watch your show in the morning.
Child: One more story! Please please please please please please!
Mom: If you stop whining and yelling right now, I will give you one more hug.
The child is quiet. Mom walks back into the room, gives another hug, then back to the door.
Mom: Good night. I love you.
Child: One more hug!!!!
Mom: Go to bed nicely so you can watch your show in the morning. I’m closing the door now. Good night.

Child continues to yell and fuss for several minutes this night. The next night she goes to bed nicely to earn her show in the morning.

So where in this story is the bribe? Is there any positive reinforcement?

The positive reinforcement is the system in place- earning a show for going to bed nicely. In a well-planned system, that target behavior has been defined and reviewed with the child many times.  The show is the reinforcer for the preferred behavior.

The bribe happened in the moment to stop a problem behavior- the whining of “pleasepleasepleaseplease”. The mom induced her to stop by offering up something extra that wasn’t already going to happen. Mom had one foot out the door- there were no more hugs, no more interaction on the agenda. But what happened?  A bribe to stop the whining in the moment.

Did it work? For a minute, probably. Was it effective in the long run? Absolutely not. What this fictional (but all too familiar sounding) mom did was reinforce the problem behavior. When you whine, mom will come back in and hug you. What kind of plan is that?!

Bribery and positive reinforcement are not the same. Through systematic and thoughtful application, positive reinforcement can increase desired behaviors. Bribery is not systematic or thoughtful and it does nothing to teach or increase desired behaviors.

Bribery is different from reinforcement in that bribery is intended to benefit the person delivering it. Positive reinforcement is intended to benefit the person receiving it.

Positive reinforcement increases behaviors. Bribery influences and corrupts a person. These are not the same. Focusing on positive reinforcement, learning more about positive reinforcement and using positive reinforcement can help any parent and child celebrate more successes together.

Bribe. (n.d.). Retrieved September 25, 2017, from Merriam-Webster website  https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bribe
Bribery. (n.d). Retrieved September 25, 2017 from Dictionary.com website http://www.dictionary.com/browse/bribery
Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed., pp 560-567). Columbus: Pearson