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The Power of Positive Reinforcement


What is Reinforcement and why is it important?


Have you ever thought to yourself “why do I keep on doing that?” or “why does this keep on happening?” We can often relate to these questions with situations that trigger us, with an intense array of feelings such as guilt, sadness, frustration, or even hopelessness. For some of us, we might engage in risky behaviours, or experience intense feelings of anger before we engage in behaviours that we later regret. For others, we may often find ourselves in patterns where we are often lied to, manipulated, or mistreated. Why does this happen?


When we begin to build our understanding reinforcement, we may begin to build a greater awareness of our world. The concept of reinforcement was first introduced by B. F. Skinner, a world renowned and influential psychologist. The premise behind Skinner’s ideas is that people learn through reinforcements and punishments (we will focus exclusively on positive reinforcements for this blog post). The concept of positive reinforcement refers to the idea of when people are rewarded for a specific behaviour, they will engage in that specific behaviour more often. That sounds simple, right? How does this affect us?


How positive reinforcement may work against us:


  • When we reward unwanted behaviours of others
  • When our own unwanted behaviours are rewarded


Think of a time when we have rewarded unwanted behaviour- we all do it! For example, imagine that we are in a store, with our child, and they begin to protest and cry because we have refused to purchase them candy. The crying gets louder, and people begin to gaze. If we were to surrender and purchase our child the candy, we would be rewarding them. The underlying message is: ‘I get candy (or what I want) when I cry.’ It is important for us to be flexible at times, but think about how this may impact the child when the same message is consistently reinforced over and over again.


Using the same principle, take some time to reflect on how we behave ourselves. How has positive reinforcement influenced us? Have we learned to scream or use violence so that we are heard and get our way? Have we learned to consistently say “yes” to others and are rewarded with their approval? These unwanted behaviours may have been reinforced over our lifetime, and it may be helpful to be of how they are continually reinforced to alter the pattern.


How positive reinforcement may work in our favour:


  • We reinforce wanted behaviours of others (no guarantee)
  • We reinforce our own wanted behaviours


When our partner has done something nice for us, do we show them our appreciation? When we decline an invitation from a friend, do we remember to thank them for thinking of us? Showing appreciation may not be necessary at every opportunity, but are we reinforcing their behaviours enough for them to continue in the future? Perhaps we can increase or decrease the frequency of certain behaviours by monitoring our own responses.


Reinforcing wanted behaviours is not always easy. When our friends or partner discloses a painful truth to us, are we always reinforcing their truthfulness? Can we inadvertently discourage truthfulness? It is important to note though that we cannot guarantee a change in others’ behaviour no matter the amount of reinforcement that we provide.


Lastly, we may benefit from positively reinforcing our own wanted behaviours. How often do we treat ourselves to something nice after an accomplishment? How will the immediate positive reinforcement subconsciously affect our motivation in the future for similar activities? A greater awareness of positive reinforcement may take us one step closer to understanding ourselves and the world around us.


Read more related to this topic in Steven’s next blog I Need To Get Motivated


Steven Ngu, MC, is a Registered Provisional Psychologist with College of Alberta Psychologists. He has extensive experience in the area of  confidence and assertiveness, plus many more.  For more information about Steven, click here to link to his full bio page.