If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times…

Image courtesy of DENIZ ONGAR.

Heard these before?

“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.” Or even a million. That’s a lot of times.

“I’ll tell…”

“I’ll be your best friend…”

Or how about this.

“If you don’t clean your room I’ll…”

“I’ll give you a dollar every time you…”

We’ve already mentioned “Wait till your father gets home…”, which sits nicely alongside “If you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about…”.

We inherently understand behavior change don’t we? Sort of. And the above behavior change techniques have been, I’m sure, effective in some way, some how. Over the next couple of posts we’re going to dive more into the mechanics of reinforcement. How does it really work? We’ll start with the broad brush today, and unpack more detail as we go.


Because we’ve been looking at ways to modify behavior, we’ve worked through Positive and Negative Reinforcement, and Punishment. In each post, we’ve talked about applying reinforcement or punishment to the behavior as if once was enough. If you’re a parent, teacher, or employer, you’ll know that’s not the case. If you’re honest with yourself, you probably know from experience anyway ( just like me!) that one effort doesn’t make a new behavior stick.

It’s an important question, because we know that we’re possibly working against ingrained behaviors or well-established mental subroutines that take some overcoming. We also know that the positive benefits of intervening (such as with psychological therapies) can wear off over time.

To answer this for the longer term, we’re going to look at Reinforcement Schedules. They’re easy to get your head around and, when you do, you’ll see them everywhere. If you’re involved with managing the behavior of others, either directly or indirectly, you’ll be able to see how this could apply to you.

Keep in mind that humans are notoriously irrational, complex, emotional things, who don’t necessarily fit boxes particularly well, so this isn’t a panacea. One of the great criticisms of Operant Conditioning is its limited scope; good for animals and small children (same thing really) but more difficult with adults.

Because we’re funny like that, we may not behave in a predictable fashion. To best manage this and to get us going, here are some tips for making reinforcement effective, even with irrational adults.

7 key practical principles

  1. Be selective. Choose discrete, identifiable behaviors, so that,
  2. You can measure – by which I mean, you can test the behavior to be confident that any change is directly related to what you’re doing.
  3. Look for the pivot. Find the critical behavior that needs change.
  4. Be sure that the consequence is seen to be directly related to the behavior. You’d call this a contingent outcome. One is contingent on the other, and more likely to reinforce behavior. A good way of helping with this is to,
  5. Keep the reinforcement close in time to the behavior. Another way of saying this is contiguous. This lessens the time taken to learn a new behavior.
  6. Also, try and keep it close in space, so not by remote, or by having to move to a different space to get it. Generally, close in time is usually close in space too.
  7. Keep the reinforcement, or punishment, of sufficient magnitude. Reinforcement and punishment need to be matched to the behavior. A number of employment grievances argue, in effect, that the punishment outweighed the crime.

Reinforcement over time

When we talk about changing behavior, it’s helpful if we think about this as a process, with a few sequential phases. A common example looks like this:

  1. Acquisition – getting a behavior
  2. Maintenance – keeping a behavior
  3. Extinction – losing a behavior

You already know about extinction. This is when there is no reinforcement of any kind, and so the behavior eventually dies away, becoming extinct. Extinction is the process of extinguishing a behavior.

If you flip this on its head, you’ll get the opposite. Extinction means never reinforcing a behavior. Continuous reinforcement means always reinforcing a behavior. Put these at opposite ends of a continuum.

In the middle, therefore, is reinforcement that’s not all the time, but is some of the time. This is Partial (or intermittent) Reinforcement, which just means sometimes reinforcing a behavior. You could show it like this.

Continuous Reinforcement >>> Partial Reinforcement >>> Extinction

Each has its place in the reinforcement framework, particularly when you do this…









In words, what this means is that the best and quickest way of acquiring a behavior us when every occurrence is reinforced. When the behavior has been established, we need to maintain it, and the best way of doing that is to drop the reinforcement from continuous to partial, so that it’s only reinforced sometimes.

Contrary to what you might think, dropping the reinforcement back tends to increase the frequency of the behavior rather than decrease it. If you then want the behavior to drop off, stop reinforcing altogether.

Obviously this is a bit of a sliding scale, and if you’re in the middle of partially reinforcing something, and you’re leaving it a bit long, you run the risk of extinction. In that case, you’d slide to the left a little and increase the amount of reinforcing you’re doing until the behavior is back at the levels it was.

So here’s the take home bit

  1. Select a behavior
  2. Decide if you can measure it
  3. Identify if you want short-term or longer-term change
  4. Determine what could be a suitable reinforcer
  5. Decide if you can administer the reinforcement close to the behavior in time and space
  6. Keep it simple
  7. Read the next post where we’ll cover what to do

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Continuous Reinforcement, Contingent Reinforcement, Contiguous reinforcement

Getting it so far?

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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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4 Responses to If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times…

  1. Steven H says:

    Hey Brendon, I am a psychology student too! I got a BA in 2009. Now whenever I interact with other people (and especially animals) I always think of things in the context of operant conditioning. I also like to ask (especially with pets), “What is it that I am communicating to this being? Do they know I want them to do X and not Y?”

    Changing behavior through reinforcement is fun stuff.

    • Hey Steven. Thanks for stopping by – feel free to sign up. And congratulations! I take it you graduated from Binghamton NY? I went the same degree path and it’s taken me interesting places, and I still come back to what I learned then. So, now that you’ve got your BA, what next?

  2. Sam Alexander says:

    Hey Brendon

    Maybe this a completely silly question, but which would be more effective – negatively reinforcing someone’s behaviour that you didn’t like, or pretending that they had actually done the good thing that you wanted them to and positively reinforcing that pretend behaviour?

    For example, and maybe this is a bit simplistic, but if a child didn’t do the dishes when they should have, would it be more effective to say “It was bad of you not to do the dishes and as a result…”, or “(big hug, sincere smile) thank you so much for the doing the dishes, you’re amazing!”? The same scenario with an adult?


    • Hey Sam

      Perhaps a different answer. If it’s a behaviour I didn’t like – I want to eliminate it, so I’m going to punish the behaviour to eliminate it, not negatively reinforce it – remember, negative reinforcement isn’t punishment, and it strengthens behaviour.

      If i follow the “It was bad of you not to do the dishes and as a result…” option, then this is punishment. If I follow the other option, big hug etc, then I’m reinforcing, but reinforcing what? What I think and what they think might be different here. Also, an adult might find this sarcastic?

      If the dishes weren’t done at all, positive reinforcement would be praise, hugs, etc when they are, negative reinforcement would be nagging until they’re done, and then stopping nagging when they get underway. Positive punishment would be a smack for not doing them, to weaken the “not doing” behaviour, while negative punishment wold be docking pocket money to weaken the “not doing” behaviour. Ok?

      Generally, I’d opt for reinforcement over punishment. Clearly, the promise of a straight reward is good. if you get the dishes done by… then I will give you… Not bad to get it started. if you want the behavior to keep going, then spread the rewards more thinly over time, but don’t do this too quickly, you want to get the behaviour bedded in.

      Negative reinforcement can be quickly followed by positive, so that I might nag, and so stop when the behaviour starts, and then add something good to positively reinforce the behaviour through the job and when the job is completed. i could run a punishment schedule at the same time, so that there are consequences of some kind (good or bad) depending on the behaviour I see.

      Does this help? Let me know if you need more.

      B BODY { font-family:Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;font-size:12px; }

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