Reinforcement: One Key Tool In Managing Behavior - Learning Lab

Reinforcement: One Key Tool In Managing Behavior


My ongoing contributions to this page will be based around both a conceptual and practical understanding of behavior and how it is shaped, reinforced, and punished. We will utilize one “pretend” scenario, dissect it, analyze it, and look at the kinds of errors we may make in situations like this and the tools we have to deal with those successfully as well.

Behavior, in short, is shaped by reinforcement and punishment. That statement may feel overly simplistic, but it is imperative, in that if we are to understand how to actually affect, change, manipulate others’ behavior(s) (and our own), we must first understand the very basic relationships between behavior and reinforcement and also the relationship between behavior and punishment.

In the simplest sense, reinforcement is anything that follows a behavior and that increases the likelihood that the same behavior will recur. The vast majority of us view “reinforcement” in the most tangible and obvious forms (e.g., If I want a child to stop crying, I give him a toy). What we may fail to recognize is that all behavior is shaped by reinforcement, regardless of the significance or “importance” of the behavior, from itching your toe to asking a person to marry you. The point being, ALL behavior is shaped by reinforcement and punishment (outside of behavior that is automatic and/or instinctual).

We tend to have an idea that certain kinds of acts in themselves are reinforcing and others are punishing, (e.g., giving candy to get a child to be quiet would be reinforcing, spanking a child would be a punishment), but what is so important to understand is that an act is only reinforcing if we increase the likelihood of that behavior and an act is only punishing if it decreases the behavior (e.g., if the child continues to be “bad” even after a spanking, the act of spanking is not technically “punishing”).

We will now look at our scenario used to illustrate the different concepts of behavior over the coming months.

Johnny is a 4-year-old boy. His mother takes him to the store with her. After about 30 minutes, Johnny is growing tired and says, “Mom, I want to go home”. His mother says, “Hold on, we are almost done”. Johnny then sits down on the floor and begins to cry and yell and bang his fists on the floor as well. His mother tells him to “Stop now, or you will get less TV tonight”, but he
only bangs louder. This is really embarrassing and stressful and she is not sure what to do. She picks him up, leaves her cart, and takes him to the car to go home. Johnny stops crying and yelling once they leave the store.

In this example, Johnny has put his mother in a very difficult situation, in which he holds a lot of “power”. What has essentially happened is that because his mother felt she had no other real option, she reinforced the behavior of sitting and crying in the store by “giving in” and this has now strengthened this behavior. As a result, we are likely to see this behavior not only again, but most likely with even more intensity. This is not to suggest that his mother is a “bad parent” or that she messed up. But, it does illustrate how we can inadvertently reinforce and strengthen unwanted behavior.

I utilize this example for our first discussion on reinforcement because it demonstrates that “reinforcement” applies to all types of behavior, both wanted and unwanted. I want to ensure we make that distinction and remove any association we may have with the term “reinforcement” and thinking that it applies only to “good things”. Unwanted or “bad” behavior is shaped by reinforcement in the same manner as desired or “good” behavior.

My next post we will examine punishment, what it is, and how it might relate to this scenario as well.