It could happen to anyone…
This could be any kid. “Daddy, can I please have some candy?”
This could be any dad. “No.”
This could happen any time…
“Pleeeeeeeeease! Oh please can I have some candy. Pleeeeeeeeease! Oh pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease! Pleeeeeeeeease!”
“Oh all right then”
While this Dad totally rolled over or, as is likely, his children already knew where his soft underbelly was, it’s a ripper scenario. Children are fruitful ground for psychological experiments aren’t they…
A little role play for you
I’m assuming that this is a situation most or all people are familiar with, even if they aren’t parents. So what I want you to do is put yourself in the position of the parent in this relationship. If merely the thought of this breaks you out in hives, you can stop now. If you need fortification through a triple shot espresso, I’ll wait.
Otherwise, here’s the deal. Spend a minute and analyze this interaction from the parent’s perspective, and note down your thoughts. What’s happening? What do you think and feel as a parent. How would you react? How have you reacted? Why did this dad do this?
Tying it together
We’ve now covered Classical Conditioning, Operant Conditioning and Positive Reinforcement as ways of shaping behavior. You’ll remember from our last post that
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
The obvious question that falls from the last statement is about the kind of thing you might remove. For Negative Reinforcement, you’re removing something unpleasant. (To impress your friends you’re better to say aversive.)
Perhaps the best way of understanding this is through some examples. In each case, we need to see the removal of an aversive consequence that’s dependent on the behavior, which increases the likelihood of the behavior occurring again.
Let’s imagine a scenario that would never happen. A kid is with his dad in the supermarket. They’re queuing at the checkout and, thus far, it’s gone well. As they get to the operator, the kid comes face to face with the accidentally placed childrens’-eye-level candy.
He asks, terribly politely, whether he might have some candy. He is gently refused. Thus began our story above. But what happened?
The kid executed a textbook Negative Reinforcement manoeuver. He began an aversive event, with a clear goal in mind – getting his dad to give him candy. After the refusal, he instigated a repetitive pleading. He removed the aversive stimulus when his dad caved – he stopped the noise. Removal of the pleading negatively reinforced the giving candy behavior.
Next time they go to the supermarket, I’d love to be there. The kid, realizing that he could well have increased the likelihood of candy-giving behavior, might test whether the behavior was reinforced. If this happens again, voila, he’s a winner! Make sense?
Some other examples
- Your dad stops nagging when you finally take out the trash. The nagging is a negative reinforcer for taking out the trash.
- If you’ve ever driven in a car that whines or buzzes until you click the driver’s seatbelt, you’ve experienced negative reinforcement.
- An itching insect bite negatively reinforces scratching. The itch is (temporarily!) removed by scratching.
As with Positive Reinforcement, the removal of the unpleasant thing needs to be timely so that it’s obviously connected with the behavior. For animals and pets, the removal needs to be pretty much immediate or they won’t make the connection. For children, I’d argue the same, but as kids grow they become better at waiting, so there is some wriggle room there.
In the workplace, immediate removal may not be possible either, but we do have the capacity for linking the removal with the behavior by talking about the delay. Assuming adults are better at waiting than children, and can wait for longer, there is some slack here that a conversation can bridge.
One example of this is with workplace bullying. The dismissal of a bully negatively reinforces whistleblowing, but it takes time, during which the bullying is still evident.
So here’s the take home bit
Negative and Positive Reinforcement can be used together for managing or shaping behavior. Positive Reinforcement is easier and more obvious as we tend to go straight to rewards. Negative Reinforcement takes more thought, but can be immensely powerful.
One interesting thought to take away. I worked in alcohol and drug counselling for a few years, and many of my punters would joke that they only kept taking drugs to avoid the withdrawal symptoms.
For a starter, drugs are very powerfully rewarding, which is why we take them again. Remember we talked back in the day about adrenaline and dopamine as feel good chemicals? The brain’s reward system is dopamine based, and drugs are “rewarding” in the chemical sense.
Withdrawal, an unpleasant event, is removed when drugs are taken again. Taking drugs is positively reinforced. Not stopping is negatively reinforced. Perhaps there’s some room to move here too?
Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat
Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement
What have you noticed?
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