Positive steps to being a better dancer. Maybe.

NOT my daughter. Image courtesy of ANDY STAFINIAK.

I’m a good dancer

Miss 6 at the dinner table last night. “I’m a good dancer.”

Me. “Really?”, knowing that she’s never had a lesson, they aren’t on the radar, she isn’t interested in dance, and so wondering which kid at school is taking dancing, trying to make friends, or convince my daughter she’s better than she is.

Miss 6. “Yup. Watch this.” Whereupon she inelegantly hopped down from the table and spun about on her toes, arms kind of in the air. After the full 360 degrees had passed by in a sort of blur, she stopped. Her hair stopped next, but the smile just kept on going, missing tooth and all. Again. Then the other direction. Then the aerial version.

Me. “Mmmm.” Eyebrows up head bob, parentally interested but realistically noncommittal.

Miss 6. “Told ya.”

I bet the dinner tasted even better after that victory.

Analysing the transaction

What was so interesting was wondering how she’d come by such an outrageously (truly, it is outrageous, even for her) inflated opinion of her own talent, and how relevant it is to performance. Some things were immediately obvious.

One. She had a very, very small sample group.

Two. Her measurement tool was very simple and restricted to one thing only.

Three, and here’s the gold. Praise from the right quarters, delivered in the right way, is unbelievably powerful. My lack of encouragement, reward (or anything!) didn’t dent the belief, although I’ve yet to see the twirling thing again.

To get this in the right context – this is about learning. We’re building a composite picture of learning here, so let’s refresh, and then come back to my daughter. I know you’ve refreshed once already, but you also know about the benefits of repeating material for consolidation of memory and building stronger neural pathways!

Classical conditioning

Classical conditioning which we talked about a few posts back, is a method of shaping behavior. It’s based on simple, automatic behaviors, and the shaping begins before the behavior, by manipulating things in the environment. The most famous is the bell rung by Ivan Pavlov to let his dogs know it was tucker time. They’d salivate (automatic response) to the bell, as if it were the meat.

Operant conditioning

We looked last post at Operant conditioning, seeing how it deals with more complex, voluntary behaviour with consequences after the event impacting on the likelihood of the behavior being repeated. You’ll recall we touched briefly on two central tools – Reinforcement and Punishment, and that there was a positive and negative variant of each. You’ll also remember, because I wrote it like, four times 🙂 that negative reinforcement is not punishment. Feel refreshed?

Ok. Some nitty gritty. Positive Reinforcement first.

Reinforcement, both positive and negative, strengthens behavior. How? Let’s look more closely, but you’ll know it when you see it. By the way, I’m going to be tight with definitions so that you get this thoroughly.

Let’s start with the basics to get clear, then we’ll focus on Positive Reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement adds something as a consequence, to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again

Negative Reinforcement removes something as a consequence, to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again

If you were a dog, and we were trying to teach you to beg, we might give you a biscuit if you’d just done it, and we wanted you to repeat what you just did. This is probably the most well-known aspect of operant conditioning.

We talk about using praise and encouragement for children when they succeed at something. It’s also effective with employees, although overlooked by many managers. But as with my daughter, it clearly has to be timely, and well-delivered.

At home parents might talk about praise, extra rewards such as more computer time or a treat like a trip to the mall, some yummy food, visit out with the family, or something else designed as a reward.

At school we’ll talk of praise, privileges, grades, extra credit, honors and the like, while at work we might consider praise, promotions, additional benefits, bonuses, perks and so forth.

For my daughter, getting some pretty nice feedback about the quality of her dancing (still shaking my head) led her to the belief that she was a good dancer, because of her obviously unparalleled twirling.

Great. I’m going to assume that you all get the concept of rewarding behavior. Now that you do, here’s the tight bit.

The tight bit

We talk about praise, rewards, bonuses and the rest, as a way of recognizing a behavior we like. Something good happens, and we reward it. Positive reinforcement is tighter than that, more specific. Often, we assume that if we reward something, we’re engaging in Positive Reinforcement, but I really want you to get your head around the subtle differences here. Actually, they’re not that subtle, but I do want you to get the difference. Here’s what I mean.

Positive Reinforcement MUST satisfy some criteria. The first two I hope you’re good with already:

  • The consequence comes because of the behavior – it’s dependent on it
  • The behavior is now more likely to occur

And here’s the third, and key condition, which we get when we put the first two together

  • The behavior is more likely to occur, and this is the critical bit because and only because the consequence that’s added is dependent on the behavior.

The two must be related, and the only way we have of determining whether the food, or the praise, or the money, or the whatever, is reinforcing, is the change in the likelihood of that behavior occurring again after we add the consequence. That’s the tight bit.

In plain English, if the behavior didn’t increase or occur again as a result of the consequence, then no reinforcement has happened.

So my daughter. Praise, and from an influential source. (Side note: this is useful because the higher the esteem we have for someone, particularly if there is an emotional connection, the more we glibly accept what they say as true without critical thought, but more on that another time.)

The praise was timely and, for reinforcement to occur, the consequence needs to be added as soon as possible after the behavior. This is ok for dogs and biscuits, but obviously more difficult with people, work, families and the like. However, keep looking for the opportunity. At work, keep time for it if you can’t do it immediately.

But has it increased the likelihood of her twirling? If it didn’t, it’s just reward and feel goods. If it did, then I guess I’ll have material to write a post on how to resist buying ballet slippers.

So here’s the take home bit

Positive reinforcement has a particular meaning. It’s not reward, but it is a subset of reward. Be clear therefore what you’re doing when you hand out praise, prizes, promotions and so forth. Are you just giving a reward for something done well?

Or are you actively choosing a specific behavior to positively reinforce, adding a consequence and then measuring to see whether the behavior occurs again because of the consequence? Test, repeat, test repeat, test, repeat.

For my daughter, we’ll wait and see. For you, Negative Reinforcement next time.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement

What have you noticed?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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