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  • Writer's pictureEric Gadol

Reinforcing Change

My profession is about helping people change, and I help my clients figure out what changes they want to make, and then we generate strategies to help bring about those changes. One of the most important tools in helping anyone change is understanding the principles of shaping behavior.

These principles of shaping behavior are applicable to any animal, even us humans. We are certainly more complex in our understanding and our motivations, but basic principles of punishment and reward operate similarly across all animals. We often understand this principles as they relate to pets or even children, but sometimes we don’t apply those principles to ourselves, so I want to outline the basics of reinforcement and punishment and explain how to apply these principles to yourself.

First, let’s define reinforcement and punishment. While this may seem basic, understanding each of this principles is critical to understanding how to create change. Reinforcement and punishment are both responses to a person’s behavior. Reinforcement is anything that increases the probability of an organism engaging in a particular behavior. For example, if you say “Thank you!” to someone who holds the door for you, you have just reinforced that behavior. Your expression of gratitude has made it more likely that that person will hold the door for you (or someone else) in the future. Punishment, on the other hand, is anything the decreases the probability of an organism engaging in a particular behavior. If you honk at someone who cuts you off while you’re driving, that person is probably less likely to make that mistake again.

Why is this important? This basic definition of these two responses help us understand something that is critical for creating change: Punishment stops behavior; punishment does not teach new behavior! This seems obvious, but how many times have you punished yourself when you have been trying to start a new behavior? Perhaps you are working to develop a new exercise routine, and you miss a day. If you’re like me, your first reaction is to criticize and berate yourself. “You’re not going to get in shape like that! You’ve got to try harder! Are you really committed to this?” This kind of self-talk is unpleasant and punishing, which is not going to help me increase my behavior of exercising! Instead, such self-punishment is likely to decrease my desire to make attempts to exercise in the future.

Reinforcement, on the other hand, is just what you need when you want to increase a behavior. If you are trying to increase your exercise, reinforce every positive change that you make! Use all kinds of reinforcements, especially when you’re just starting out. Try positive self-talk, saying something like, “You did it! Good job!” Schedule rewards for yourself, such as your favorite drink after exercising. Plan for bigger rewards as you meet your goals; for example, you might buy a new outfit when you reach a certain weight goal. All of these strategies will help you make the change that you want!

One last principle to remember as you practice reinforcement is the concept of shaping. Shaping is the practice of reinforcing small changes on your way to bigger changes. If you decide to learn a new language, it will be important to give yourself rewards as you learn all the basics of pronunciation, spelling, and grammar. Reinforcing yourself along the way will increase your motivation to continue learning. If you only reinforce yourself once you’re fluent, it will be a long, hard road on the way there. Use shaping to make your change easier to manage.

I’ve focused in this post on creating change in yourself; these principles are just as true in eliciting change in other people. If you want your children to be more helpful, reinforce them when show even the slightest bit of helpfulness. If you want your spouse to listen to you more, let him or her know how much like it when they do listen. Child psychologists often talk about catching your child doing something good; this is reinforcing the behavior that you want.

If you’re interested in learning more about reinforcement to shape the behavior of yourself or of other people, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog offers a great illustration of these concepts.

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