“How do I change an individual’s behavior?”
This is an important and practical question that is asked every day by parents who need to discipline their children, companies that want to increase productivity, or people who want to stick to an exercise routine.
Psychology has offered several schools of thought and approaches.
Among the notable ones are the Law of Effect and Reinforcement Theory of Motivation.
What is the Law of Effect?
The law of effect by E.L. Thorndike states that responses that are followed by pleasant consequences will be more likely to occur in a similar situation while those responses that are followed by unpleasant consequences will be less likely to occur.
In other words, animals and humans learn from their rewarding or punishing experiences and repeat those behaviors which have led them to desirable outcomes, or avoid repeating behaviors leading to undesirable ones1.
What is the Reinforcement Theory of Motivation?
Based on Reinforcement Theory, a person’s or animal’s future behaviors can be changed by the consequences imposed by the external environment. To increase desired behavior, reward it with a pleasant stimulus or remove an aversive stimulus when it happens. To decrease undesired behavior, give an aversive stimulus or remove a pleasant stimulus after it occurs.
Reinforcement Theory is rooted in the theory of operant conditioning, which was first presented by American psychologist B. F. Skinner. He felt that classical conditioning, which was associative learning of involuntary behavior, was far too simplistic to explain complex human behavior.
B.F. Skinner believed that individual behavior could be motivated to change by applying a consequence following its occurrence. This forms the basis of behaviorism.
Behaviorism is a school of thought in psychology devoted to the application of reinforcement theory for behavioral modification2.
For example, a parent gives a child candy whenever he successfully uses the potty.
If the parent does this frequently and consistently, the child associates the potty with a good experience and is motivated to keep doing it until it becomes a habit and a learned behavior.
Operant conditioning is a type of associative learning that causes a behavioral change with the following components:
Behavior – good behavior or bad behavior that can be changed by a stimulus.
Stimulus – an object or event that is added or removed after the particular behavior to change the probability of the behavior appearing again.
Reinforcer – a stimulus that increases a desirable behavior.
Punisher – a stimulus that decreases an undesirable behavior.
What are the different types of reinforcements?
There are three types of operant conditioning that can modify the occurrence of a behavior3. They are:
Reinforcement – using reinforcer as a consequence to encourage a behavior
Punishment – using punishment as a consequence to discourage a behavior
Extinction – stopping all reinforcers or punishment to halt previously learned behavior
Both reinforcement and punishment can be further divided into positive and negative types.
The term “positive” does not mean good consequences and “negative” does not mean bad consequences. Rather, “positive” means adding a consequence, and “negative” means removing or depriving a consequence.
Putting the different types and subtypes of operant conditioning together, you get the following categories.
1. Positive reinforcement encourages a behavior by giving a pleasant stimulus
- Example: Animal trainers give treats to a dog after it performs a trick.
2. Negative reinforcement encourages a behavior by removing an aversive stimulus.
- Example: Students who get A’s on all their classwork are exempted from the final exam
3. Positive punishment discourages a behavior by giving an aversive stimulus
- Example: Police issue a ticket to drivers who exceed the speed limit.
4. Negative punishment discourages a behavior by removing a pleasant stimulus.
- Example: After a teenager breaks the curfew, his privilege to go out is removed, i.e. grounded.
5. Extinction stops a previously reinforced behavior over time by stopping the reinforcement.
- Example: When a child keeps making funny faces but nobody laughs, she eventually stops doing it.
Schedules of reinforcement: When are reinforcers or punishers applied
The types of reinforcement schedules determine when consequences are applied4.
Continuous reinforcement schedules – Consequences are given every time the behavior occurs.
Intermittent reinforcement schedules – Consequences are only given some of the time after the behavior appears.
Intermittent schedules can come in these forms:
- Fixed Interval. The reinforcement is applied after a specific period of time since the last reinforcement.
- Fixed Ratio. The reinforcement is applied after a specified number of reinforcements has been delivered.
- Variable interval. The reinforcement is given after a variable duration since the last reinforcement.
- Variable ratio. The reinforcement is given after a variable number of reinforcements has been delivered.
Reinforcement theory examples
You can find examples of Reinforcement Theory in many real-life situations.
Reinforcement and punishment are used frequently by parents to discipline their children.
Screentime is rewarded when a child completes their homework (positive reinforcement).
If a child gets a good grade in an exam, chores are waived (negative reinforcement).
If a child breaks a family rule, he is given a time-out (positive punishment).
Lying results in a child losing her allowance (negative punishment).
Many schools have replaced corporal punishment with positive and negative reinforcement.
When a child completes an assigned activity, they are given praise or stickers (positive reinforcement).
When a child gets a good grade, they can skip one homework assignment (negative reinforcement).
If a child doesn’t complete their homework, they will need to do extra class work (positive punishment).
If a child misbehave in class, they lose their recess (negative punishment).
Employee behavior in organizations
Companies influence employees’ behavior through positive and negative reinforcers.
If employees meet the company’s business goal, they are awarded with a bonus (positive reinforcement). If employees achieve high performance levels, they can skip the routine training (negatrive reinforcement).
Sales and marketing
Marketers often use rewards to entice new consumers to make repeat purchases, such as discounts for repeat purchases (positive reinforcement).
Many online games apply reinforcement theory to increase players’ game time.
Players may be given experience points for task completion to increase their ranking (positive reinforcement) or denied access to new areas if they have not completed a quest (negative punishment).
Limitations of Reinforcement Theory
The aforementioned examples indicate that the reinforcement principle has practical and tested applications in the real world.
Despite being a powerful tool for explaining human behavior, operant conditioning has its limitations.
One of the biggest assumptions of Skinner’s reinforcement theory is that consequences, and consequences alone, influence behavior.
The theory does not account for higher-level motivations or the inner feelings of individuals which could lead to conflicting results.
Therefore, it does not always accurately predict how people will respond to reinforcement.
Here is a simple example.
Positive punishment used to stop children from showing bad behavior can often backfire on parents of strong-willed children. Unwanted behavior often increases rather than decreases after the punishment5.
That is because Skinner’s theory has not taken into account the negative effects of punishment. The more a child is punished, the harder they rebel against the authority figures resulting in the opposite effects.
Humans are complex creatures who are driven not just by a fear of behavioral consequences, but also by other conscious, subconscious, and unconscious factors.
Also See: Vicarious Reinforcement
- 1.Postman L. The history and present status of the law of effect. Psychological Bulletin. Published online November 1947:489-563. doi:10.1037/h0057716
- 2.McLeod SA. Bf Skinner: Operant Conditioning. .; 2007:115-144.
- 3.Leitenberg H, Rawson RA, Mulick JA. Extinction and reinforcement of alternative behavior. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Published online 1975:640-652. doi:10.1037/h0076418
- 4.Ferster CB, Skinner BF. Schedules of Reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1957. doi:10.1037/10627-000
- 5.Lytton H. Child and parent effects in boys’ conduct disorder: A reinterpretation. Developmental Psychology. Published online September 1990:683-697. doi:10.1037/0012-16126.96.36.1993