A large influence factor on our behaviors are the consequences of our own actions.
When we do something that is rewarded positively and satisfyingly, we are more likely to perform that action again. On the other hand, when our actions are met with negative consequences, we are less likely to repeat those actions.
This feedback is largely how we learn to interact with society and go about our lives. In psychology, we call this the Law of Effect.
Positive reinforcement is used in behavioral therapy that helps strengthen positive behaviors. Positive reinforcement leverages the Law of Effect to perform operant conditioning and behavior modification.
What is the Law of Effect?
The Law of Effect is the principle that, “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.”
When a certain characteristic or behavior provides a preferable outcome in society, those characteristics and behaviors will naturally persist.
In society, we are not always told in totality how to act in certain situations and how to fit in with the greater population. Instead, we learn these behaviors that are preferred by most through trial and error. Naturally, most people end up gravitating to behaviors that are accepted satisfyingly rather than dis-satisfyingly.
What is Operant Conditioning?
Operant conditioning is the practice of learning behaviors through reward and punishment. In psychology, operant conditioning is used to reverse non-preferred behaviors through reinforcement schedules.
Operant conditioning can be done by either reinforcement or punishment:
- Positive reinforcement — to encourage positive behavior through desirable stimulus.
- Negative reinforcement — to encourage behavior by removing undesirable stimuli.
- Positive punishment — to discourage negative behavior through undesirable stimulus..
- Negative punishment — to discourage behavior by removing desirable stimuli.
Reinforcements and punishments play a large role in everyday life and learning. Behavioral reinforcement takes place in both everyday settings (such as at school, at home, and at work) and in other natural social settings we face throughout our lives.
Using Positive Reinforcement to Influence Behavior
Positive reinforcement is when we receive a desirable stimulus after a given behavior. The desirable stimulus then reinforces the behavior, thus greater-ing the chance that a given behavior continues.
Unfortunately, our society has traditionally been heavier on negative reinforcement. And generally, it has been rather effective in getting people to act within acceptable behaviors.
Positive reinforcement, however, is most often the better way to condition people into positive behaviors — while building a valuable bond with the person you are conditioning.
Types of Positive Reinforcement
There are four different types of reinforcement that may be used depending on the given circumstances.
The four types of reinforcements are:
- Natural reinforcement — that happens naturally as a result of positive behavior, such as getting good grades.
- Social reinforcement — that happens as someone expresses approval.
- Tangible reinforcement — that happens through the gift of tangible rewards.
- Token reinforcement — that happens through giving a person points or “tokens” that can be exchanged for something else of value.
You may have seen positive reinforcement in your life in a number of ways. Positive reinforcement can be giving your dog a treat when they do a trick. It can be handing out stars to children who do good academically. It can be a promotion or giving a raise to an employee who deserves it.
When to Use Positive Reinforcement
If you are going to consider using positive reinforcement as a parent, a teacher, or an employer you may want to consider how to schedule your reinforcement.
Reinforcement schedules can include:
- Continuous — after each and every occurrence
- Fixed ratio — after a set number of occurrences
- Variable ratio — after a varied set of occurrences
- Fixed interval — after a set interval of time
- Variable interval — after a varied set of time
Examples of Positive Reinforcement
There are many ways to introduce positive reinforcement.
- Giving praise
- Giving affection
- Giving money
- Giving Information
- Giving points
- Giving status
- Giving gifts
A pat on the back, a high-five, a thumbs up, a verbal “good job” confirmation, a round of applause, special privileges, a nice gift, or a reasonable amount of money are just a number of ways to show your appreciation and introduce positive reinforcement.
Whether taming a child, dealing with employees, or teaching a student new things, positive reinforcement is always a good way to influence positive behaviors. Positive reinforcement can help ensure that the person you’re trying to condition continues making positive actions.
Positive reinforcement isn’t always the best solution to a behavioral problem, and shouldn’t be used in every situation. However, positive reinforcement can help build mutual relationships and develop mutually beneficial actions.
Positive reinforcement can be used to reinforce good manners, build patience, improve concentration, increase motivation, establish compliance and develop relationships.
If you find yourself in a situation where you have oversight over another person, consider using positive reinforcement.
- Gray, Peter. Psychology, Worth, NY. 6th ed. pp 108–109
- Athalye VR, Santos FJ, Carmena JM, Costa RM. Evidence for a neural law of effect. Science. 2018;359(6379):1024-1029. doi:10.1126/science.aao6058
- Operant Conditioning, J. E. R. Staddon and D. T. Cerutti, Annual Review of Psychology 2003 54:1, 115-144
- Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: The Free Press