Positive Reinforcement Keeps Us Behaving!
The presence of positive reinforcement in our lives can be seen in a multitude of ways. We use it to encourage our children and train our pets, it is quite common in education, from the earliest grades through college, and it enters into our lives as adults in many ways. Often the application of reinforcement is not intentional, we give it out of habit, and partly because it leads to reinforcement for us as well. Although learning theorists may disagree about the nature of reinforcement, no one can deny it.
There are many ways in which positive reinforcement is given to children. Infants respond favorably to attention, and as they coo and smile back, that attention is itself reinforced. This helps to create an essential bond between the child and its caregivers. In the case of premature infants, gentle physical contact (massaging or stroking) by the parents is typically reinforced as a result of the babies gaining weight more rapidly and being more active (Field, 1993). In other words, caring for an at-risk infant is reinforced, and thus the caring behavior continues. Infant massage is quite popular in many countries around the world, and it is part of the total approach to therapy recommended by Wilhelm Reich (Field, 2000, 2001).
As children grow a little older, secondary reinforcers such as encouraging words (“You can do it!”) or clapping are commonly used to reinforce taking first steps or solving a simple puzzle. Of course, primary reinforcers (e.g., crackers or juice) remain very popular as well. Such simple examples of reinforcement are certainly not unique to humans. Small pieces of food are often used to train dogs, and the reinforced behavior increases as a result, just like it does with children. While this demonstrates the basic universality of behavioral principles, it does not suggest that dogs have a personality. However, if you were to ask most pet owners, they will tell you that their animals do have personalities. And junk yard dogs don’t become vicious as a result of being treated with loving kindness.
In educational settings, positive reinforcement is used quite intentionally, and can be a lot of fun with young children. Teachers can use a wide variety of stars, smiley face stickers, student of the week awards, and other little treats that children find very rewarding. Sometimes children receive “good citizen” awards when their teachers observe an occasion of prosocial behavior (such as helping another child who was hurt on the playground). Each of these reinforcers is intended to increase those behaviors that are viewed favorably in the educational environment (completed assignments, good grades, and good citizenship). As students get older, the reinforcers come less often (as with schedules of reinforcement). Grades are given out at the end of a term or semester (reinforcing, of course, only if they are good grades). Measures such as being Valedictorian, in the top 10 of the class, being on the Dean’s List in college, or graduating summa cum laude are the pinnacles of this positive reinforcement hierarchy, yet they depend on long time intervals (some as long as the typical four years of high school or college).
As adults, our reinforcement often becomes more complicated. Based on Hull’s formula H x D x V x K, consider the effect of being offered chocolate for dessert. After eating dinner, our drive for food should decrease, and we should not be likely to eat more. However, chocolate is a powerful incentive, so we may go ahead and eat it even if we are no longer hungry. Skinner’s radical behaviorism cannot account for the phenomenon of eating something we really like when we have already eaten our fill. And yet many of us have experienced that desire to continue eating something we really like, even after we feel uncomfortably stuffed with food! One might also consider Dollard and Miller’s frustration-aggression hypothesis, and the problem many people face when trying to lose weight. It is extremely difficult to stay on a low calorie diet, especially if we cannot eat the foods we like. Very simply, this is frustrating. According to Dollard and Miller, frustration always leads to aggression. How might this aggression be manifested? We return to overeating, even though it is bad for us. In other words, we are harming ourselves and/or rebelling against a culture that seems to demand being thin in order to be attractive. Interestingly, many diet programs have responded to this problem (whether or not they understood it this way) by providing either tantalizing recipes or by offering the food itself in prepackaged form. The hope is that the meals will themselves be reinforcing, thus eliminating the frustration caused by munching endless amounts of celery and rice cakes. Of course, these days you can buy quite an interesting variety of flavored rice cakes, so even they can be reinforcing for some people!