Theory of Reinforcement

The one theory of influence almost everyone knows about is this one. And if you know only one approach, this can be good candidate. It works in a variety of situations, it can be simply applied, and it has just a few basic ideas. In fact, reinforcement theory boils down to a Main Point: Consequences influence behavior. Think about that for a moment. Consequences influence behavior. It means that people do things because they know other things will follow. Thus, depending upon the type of consequence that follows, people will produce some behaviors and avoid others. Pretty simple. Pretty realistic, too.

Reinforcement theory (consequences influence behavior) makes sense. There are three basic principles of this theory. These are the Rules of Consequences. The three Rules describe the logical outcomes which typically occur after consequences. 1. Consequences which give Rewards increase a behavior. 2. Consequences which give Punishments decrease a behavior. 3. Consequences which give neither Rewards nor Punishments extinguish a behavior. These Rules provide an excellent blueprint for influence. If you want to increase a behavior (make it more frequent, more intense, more likely), then when the behavior is shown, provide a Consequence of Reward.

If you want to decrease a behavior (make it less frequent, less intense, less likely), then when the behavior is shown, provide a Consequence of Punishment. Finally, if you want a behavior to extinguish (disappear, fall out of the behavioral repertoire), then when the behavior is shown, then provide no Consequence (ignore the behavior). Now, the Big Question becomes, “What is a reward? ” or “What is a punishment? ” The answer is easy. What is a reward? Anything that increases the behavior. What is a punisher? Anything that decreases the behavior.

Yipes, is this circular reasoning or what? Rewards increase a behavior and anything that increases a behavior is a reward. What is going on here? What’s going on is this: Reinforcement theory is a functional theory. That means all of its components are defined by their function (how they work) rather than by their structure (how they look). Thus, there is no Consequences Cookbook where a teacher can look in the chapter, “Rewards for Fifth Grade Boys,” and find a long list of things to use as rewarding consequences. Think about this a minute. Many kids find candy to be rewarding.

If they sit quietly in their chairs for five minutes and you give them each a sweet, those kids will learn to sit quietly. The candy (Consequence of Reward) is used to increase the behavior of sitting quietly. So, we have discovered a Reward and can put it in the Consequences Cookbook, right? And then the next time your spouse spends the afternoon cleaning up some grubby corner of the basement all you have to do is give them a candy bar and next week you’ll find ’em in the bathroom scrubbing out the tub, right? Of course not. Candy functions as a reward in some circumstances, but candy has no effect in others. If there was a Consequences Cookbook, don’t you think the School Board would pay teachers with Smiley Face stickers instead of money? )

The functional nature of reinforcement theory is important to understand. It explains why the theory sometimes appears to be incorrect. An example: when Sally Goodchild interrupts the class, Mrs. Reinforcer stops the class, tells Sally she’s a naughty girl who broke Rule 24 and now must leave the classroom and go to the principle’s office. Ouch! That really hurt Sally Goodchild. And Mrs. Reinforcer knows that when Sally returns, she will not interrupt.

Mrs. Reinforcer then goes to the teacher’s lounge and sings the praises of this really great theory. Well, don’t you know that the other kids in the class watched this event with great interest. And when Bad Bill interrupts the class, Mrs. Reinforcer stops the class, tells Bad Bill he’s a naughty boy who broke Rule 24 and now must leave the classroom and go to the principle’s office. Ouch! That really hurt Bad Bill. And Mrs. Reinforcer knows when Bad Bill comes back to class, he will not interrupt, because he will want to avoid that wicked punisher. Well, we all know what happens next.

Bad Bill comes back to class, immediately interrupts the lesson, Mrs. Reinforcer whacks him with the Consequence of Punishment, and Bad Bill keeps on interrupting, so he gets out of class. Mrs. Reinforcer is totally confused at this point and she goes back to the teacher’s lounge complaining about this stupid reinforcement theory. To understand if you have a Reward, you must observe its effect. If the Consequence increases the behavior you want to increase, viola, you have a Reward. If the Consequence decreases the behavior you want to decrease, then you have a Punishment.

Most teachers have had the unfortunate experience of Mrs. Reinforcer. They have persisted in giving a Consequence of Punishment and lo and behold, the kid keeps doing the bad thing. If the behavior does not increase or decrease the way you want it to, then you need to rethink your rewards and punishments. In summary, the main point of this theory is that consequences influence behavior. Rewarding consequences increase behavior. Punishing consequences decrease behavior. No consequences extinguish a behavior. Finally, a consequence is known by its function (how it operates).

In the next section we consider how to put the Rules into effect. Here we learn how to apply the Rules. The Rules of Consequence are used in a three step sequence that defines the process of reinforcement. We can call these steps, When-Do-Get. According to Reinforcement Theory, people learn several things during the process of reinforcement. First, they learn that certain behaviors (Step 2: Do) lead to consequences (Step 3: Get). This is the most obvious application of the Rules of Consequence. A student realizes that if she does well on an assignment (Do), then she will get a Rewarding Consequence of a pretty sticker (Get).

Another student discovers that if he speaks out inappropriately (Do), then he will receive the Punishing Consequence of reduced recess time (Get). But second, and as important, people learn that the Do-Get only works in certain situations (Step 1: When). For example, a child may discover that when she is with her parents (When) and she throws a temper tantrum (Do), she embarrasses them and they give her Rewards such as attention, toys, candy, or whatever (Get). Now when this child hits school and tries this trick, she is cruelly disappointed when the teacher provides a Punishing Consequence rather than a Rewarding Consequence.

She soon learns that Tantrum —* Reward only works When she is with Mom and Dad. This is simple. When in some situation-Do some behavior-Get a consequence. And there are only three consequences, Rewarding, Punishing, and Ignoring. Let’s look at some examples in action. One of the best examples of reinforcement I’ve ever heard came from an assistant football coach at a college. A little background: Some football players have trouble getting to team meetings. When this happens the coaches want to Punish the players so they will be on time. What to do?

The standard answer is extra exercise. When the team is in a workout, at the end of the session the coaches identify the tardy players and make them run extra laps or do more pushups, right? (When on this team, Do miss a team meeting, Get extra laps). Well, this coach had a better idea. At the end of the workout he called everyone together, identified the tardy players who missed the team meeting. Then he made the rest of the team run extra laps while the tardy ones sat and watched. The coach claimed that this application had to be given only once a year. And I believe it.

One teacher developed an excellent and memorable system of reinforcement. During tests in her mathematics class, she would quietly patrol the room, carefully observing the children. If she saw that one was in trouble, she would ease over to the child and scan the test, looking for mistakes. When she found an error, she would quietly take her pencil, tap it beside the mistake, so that the child knew there was an error on the test and where the error was. Then the teacher would take the pencil and whack it on the kid’s nose. (When you are taking a test, Do make a mistake, Get a rap on the nose).

Certainly an excellent application of the reinforcement paradigm and I would have to give it an “A” for correctness and an “F” for effectiveness. While Reinforcement Theory is a powerful influence tool, it does have several serious limitations. To use it effectively, you must be aware of these difficulties in application. 1. It is difficult to identify rewards and punishments. As noted earlier in this chapter, reinforcers are identified by their function. Thus, there is no cookbook list of Rewards and Punishments. Candy increases student cooperation, but has no value as payment to a factory worker.

Thus, you have to observe your students very carefully to discover the things they find most rewarding or punishing. (See the coach example above. ) And once you do find things that function effectively, you can be seriously disappointed to discover that they lose their value over time. As the students become accustomed to receiving some Reward (say candy or stickers), they may grow bored over time. This is perhaps the greatest challenge for any teacher. Finding good Rewards and Punishments requires a great deal of experience and insight. 2. You must control all sources of reinforcement.

Teachers often must compete with the student’s peer group. Peers provide an extremely important source of reinforcement, sometimes greater than any Reward or Punishment a teacher can give. The child’s parents and family are another source of reinforcement. Teachers sometimes think their reinforcement applications are failing because the teacher is not using the “right” Reward or Punishment. Instead the problem may be that the student wants or needs the reinforcers the peer group offers more than the ones the teacher gives. 3. Internal changes can be difficult to create.

One side effect of reinforcement theory is that children learn to perform behaviors we want them to show only when the Get is available. If the Reward is not present, then the child will not show cooperation or good effort or attention or friendliness. The child becomes little more than a well-trained monkey who does a trick, then holds out a hand waiting for the banana. The child has not internalized the behavior but instead requires the full process (When Do-Get). This means that the teacher must always be running around providing the correct consequences for the desired behaviors at the right time.

In such an instance one wonders who is being trained, the teacher or the student. You should also realize that reinforcement works best with the heuristic thinker (“If I get a Reward, then the thing is good. If I get a Punishment, then the thing is bad. “). It does not require systematic thinking. As we discovered in the Dual Process chapter, influence with heuristic thinkers is often short lived and usually situation dependent. The influence lasts only as long as the cue (in this case the Reward or the Punishment) is available.

This simply means you need to maintain a steady diet of reinforcement cues to maintain the actions you desire. 4. Punishing is difficult to do well. Punishment is an extremely powerful consequence for all living things. Whether it is a monkey, a pigeon, a child, or an adult, punishing consequences can produce extremely rapid, strong, and memorable changes. The problem is that effective punishment demands certain requirements. The research clearly shows that effective punishment must be: 1) immediate (right now! ), 2) intense (the biggest possible stick), 3) unavoidable (there is no escape), and 4) consistent (every time).

If you cannot deliver punishment under these conditions, then the punishment is likely to fail. Thus, the best punishment would be something like this. A kid does the Bad Thing, then: the kid is instantly placed in a dark room filled with snakes and bugs and jungly vines while weird and frightening voices shriek, “Don’t do the Bad Thing, Don’t do the Bad Thing. ” And as soon as the kid stops doing the Bad Thing, bang, the kid is back in class, safe and sound. While this example is an exaggeration, you get the point.

We know that most principals, almost all school boards, and all parents would be against this kind of punishment. Therefore, one of the most powerful aspects of reinforcement is effectively taken away from the teacher. Yet, some teachers persist in using weakened forms of punishment, often with unsuccessful and frustrating effects. 5. Students may come to hate teachers who use punishment. Punishment is, by definition, an aversive, painful consequence. People experience very negative emotional states when they get punished. And, as we learned in the Classical Conditioning chapter, it is very easy to condition emotions.

Thus, when a teacher uses punishment, the students will probably feel angry or fearful or hopeless and they will then connect or associate these negative feelings with the source of the punishment, the teacher. This is not a good state of affairs. As a teacher you want to use influence tools to accomplish important learning goals. If the influence tool produces negative affect for the teacher, the teacher is essentially shooting herself in the foot. Sure, the punishment helps accomplish one goal, but at the same time the punishment is making other goals more difficult to achieve. . It is easy to reinforce one pigeon, but a whole flock? Reinforcement theory has been most strongly tested with animals, particularly pigeons. And that research with pigeons has yielded outstanding results. The problem for teachers is this: The research used reinforcement principles on one pigeon at a time. Teachers teach a whole flock. The sheer size of a classroom brings a very difficult dimension into the proper application of reinforcement theory. This model is simple and widely applicable. It is also probably the one influence tool that almost every teacher knows.

Given the discussion of the limitations of reinforcement theory, you should realize that it is not the Swiss Army Knife of persuasion that can be ingeniously applied anytime anywhere with anyone. In fact, I believe that it is used too often by teachers and typically under the wrong conditions. Please understand that reinforcement theory will work marvelously when it is properly employed. Under the correct conditions, monkeys and pigeons, boys and girls, and men and women will be strongly influenced through the skillful use of reinforcement principles.

What are those correct conditions? Here’s the list: 1. The source is well-trained in the theory and practice of reinforcement. 2. The source has complete control of all significant reinforcers for all receivers. 3. The source has complete control of each receiver (i. e. what the receiver does, when the receiver does it, what other receivers are in the situation). 4. The source has a detailed and consistent plan of reinforcement. 5. The reinforcers are always delivered under the same conditions to each different receiver.

To the extent that you deviate from these general rules, the application of reinforcement will be ineffective. It is also important to realize that these inefficiencies do not make the theory a failure, but rather these inefficiencies simply show it is difficult to implement the theory in the classroom. Hill, W. (1985). Learning: A survey of psychological interpretations. (4th. Ed. ). New York: Harper and Row. Skinner, B. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: MacMillan. Skinner, B. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton Crofts. Updated September 15, 1996; Copyright SBB, 1996


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