I’m happy to welcome Beth from Behaviour Babble for a guest post on reinforcement! Read more about Beth below the post and be sure to check out her website and Facebook page! 

PictureImage courtesy of Thefeedingdoctor.com

Imagine this. You are going about your evening when the phone rings. To your surprise, it’s your Auntie Jayne. Although it is lovely to chat at first, the conversation begins to go on for longer and longer until you just cannot get a word in edgewise. When she eventually says goodbye, an hour and a half has gone. Those emails for work that really did need to be sent will have to go tomorrow. You curse yourself inwardly for not being firm enough to end the conversation sooner. A few days later the phone rings again. Instead of answering it as usual, you put it on silent and slip it into your pocket. You feel secretly relieved.  Over the following weeks you notice that you are ignoring her calls more and more often because you just cannot lose that much time. She will have to settle for texts instead. Poor Auntie Jayne!

Whether we like to admit it or not, we are all prone to behaving in certain ways more often to avoid something that we do not like, such as losing too much time to chatting on the phone.  This, believe it or not, is a type of reinforcement! But you thought that reinforcement was supposed change my behaviour for the better? Not necessarily!
Let me give you a different example. When Lucas receives a notification from his Facebook app, he clicks the link. He is rewarded with a message saying that 5 people have liked the picture that he posted. Over the next few days he notices that he is checking his Facebook more and more frequently, even when he should be studying!

If doing a certain behaviour gets us something that we want, we are more likely to continue to do that behaviour in the future. This is another example of reinforcement! Even though reinforcement is allowing Lucas to get the social approval that he wants, it does not necessarily mean that his behaviour is healthy in excess.
Reinforcement is something that is constantly occurring within our daily lives and shaping up our behaviour. So it makes sense to have some understanding of the concept, to better figure out and change the habits in your life that you aren’t happy with. There are three key things that you should know about reinforcement. These are...

  • Reinforcement increases behaviour
  • Reinforcement strengthens ANY kind of behaviour that it succeeds (Appropriate or otherwise!!)
  • There are two types of Reinforcement

(1) Reinforcement increases behaviour

Reinforcement can be defined as “An event which occurs after a behaviour, which increases the likelihood of that behaviour occurring again in the future” (Definition adapted from Cooper, Heron and Heward’s book, Applied Behavior Analysis). If reinforcement is happening, then you should see the behaviour that was reinforced occurring more often over time. Reinforcement strengthens the behaviour it immediately succeeds. One great quote which helped me to learn this concept is that “Behaviour goes where reinforcement flows” (Credit to Aubrey Daniels’s book, Other People’s Habits). In other words, we behave in ways which will get us reinforcement.


Image from https://uk.pinterest.com/thepinupgal/the-science-of-behavior/

​Another way of understanding reinforcement is to compare it to predictive texting. Let me demonstrate…
(2) Reinforcement strengthens ANY kind of behaviour that it succeeds (Appropriate or otherwise!!)

One of the most common myths about reinforcement is that it is something which only increases appropriate behaviours. This is not always the case and why I tried to dispel these myths in my opening paragraph. This myth has probably come about because a lot of the examples that are out there to explain reinforcement do so by explaining it in only a positive light. For example, type “reinforcement example” into Google and the first one you will come across is this “A mother gives her son praise (positive stimulus) for doing homework (behavior) {and the behaviour is more likely to occur in the future}”.

While this definitely is a good example of reinforcement, it does imply reinforcement is something which only occurs to increase desired behaviours. This is the case when you are aware of reinforcement and use it deliberately to change your behaviour to improve your wellbeing. But reinforcement is also occurring naturally within your life. Without you realising it, reinforcement could actually be strengthening behaviours which aren’t the most appropriate response for a given situation, such as blatantly avoiding phone calls and losing vast amounts of time to social media.

So the next time that you notice yourself nagging your partner to do their fair share of the housework, take a step back. You could accidently be reinforcing the behaviour that you are trying to decrease!
(3) There are two types of Reinforcement

Now you know that reinforcement is something which strengthens the behaviour it succeeds, it is also helpful to be aware of the two forms in which reinforcement occurs. These are, positive and negative reinforcement.

First off, do not think that positive reinforcement equals “good” and negative reinforcement equals “bad”. That’s not how it works here. Instead, try to think in terms of maths symbols.

Positive reinforcement (+) : Adding in something you like

Negative reinforcement (-): Taking away something you do not like

BOTH types of reinforcement make the behaviour it succeeded occur more often. BUT they do so in different ways.

Positive reinforcement = Rewards
You do something and you get something you like. You are more likely to do that behaviour again in the future. 

  • Buy a cup of coffee > It tastes great! > You are more likely to buy coffee when you pass that store again
  • Answer a question correctly > Get praise > More likely to try and answer questions correctly again in your lectures
  • Click a link on a website about cats > It brings up the article that you wanted to read > You are more likely to visit that website again, when you want information about cats

Negative reinforcement = Relief
You do something and you avoid or escape from something you don’t like. You are more likely to do that behaviour again in the future. 

  • Pay the meter in the car park > Avoid having to pay a fine > More likely to pay the parking meter when you park up in again
  • Your child cries in the supermarket > You get them chocolate and their crying stops > You are more likely to buy them chcoclate during the next big shop, when they start crying.
  • Submit your work before the deadline > Avoid getting a bad grade > You are more likely to submit your next assignment on time

​Are you starting to think of your own examples of reinforcement? That’s when you really know that you are becoming more confident with this interesting, but sometimes confusing principle of behaviour.
And if you ever get a bit stuck in figuring out whether something is reinforcement then be sure to check out my quick guide to reinforcement! (As seen below).

Did you find this guide useful? Can you name some more examples of reinforcement? Let me know in the comments section!

Beth created her blog Behaviour Babble in 2015 after she graduated from an MSc in Applied Behavioural Analysis. It is her goal to spread the word about behaviour analysis, debunk the jargon and to explain how you can apply this approach to enhance several areas within your life.