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Positive Reinforcement

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is when a particular action is followed by a specific response and that response is more likely to recur in future. The said action which leads to the wanted response is called the reinforcer.

For example, let's imagine we are in a classroom and every time a child raises hand to answer a question, he is paid Rs 5. He answers another question and gets another 5/-. Pretty soon, every child is trying to answer more and more questions. Here, 5/- has become a reinforcer because it has increased the desire to answer questions.

Some parents feel that rewarding children for good behavior is a BAD idea as this decreases their intrinsic motivation.

By and large rewards do not have a general harmful influence on motivation to perform a task. Rarely, rewards may have a negative influence on motivation if (a) rewards are not closely tied to a performance criterion and (b) rewards are tangible. These problems are typically avoided by not providing reinforcers for behaviors already occurring adequately and by using clear and specific criteria for reinforcement.

The self generated controversy surrounding the supposed harmful influence of rewards is rather unfortunate as some parents have been misled to avoid praising children because they think this might somehow be harmful.

Praise is a particularly powerful positive reinforcer that helps children learn. International studies have shown that praise definitely increases the inner interest people (that includes parents too!) have in activities even after praise is no longer forthcoming. Sadly most parents are on the look out for catching the bad behaviour of a child rather than acknowledging their good behaviour.

Eg. A child with a problem of thumb sucking, is more likely to face a situation where mother will tell her group of friends ‘he is 5 yrs old and still sucks his thumb’ rather than ‘now he does not suck his thumb for hours on end’

Parents must understand that general goal of positive reinforcement is to ensure that desirable behavior are eventually maintained by natural reinforcers with extrinsic and tangible reinforcers gradually fading.

Eg. Grades are an important feature of schooling, but wise educators use grades with the expectation that there will be a transition to natural reinforcers and later children do not require grades to perform better.

Some parents also question: Isn't using positive reinforcement to strengthen behavior the same as bribery?

Absolutely NOT!

The dictionary definition of bribe is "Something, such as money, offered or given to induce or influence a person to act dishonestly." As such, other than situations in which a positively reinforced behavior is dishonest or illegal, eg one parent giving money to the child to hide something from the other parent, positive reinforcement cannot be termed bribery.

We live in a society where using positive reinforcement to motivate children is less familiar than using punishment and other methods of aversive control. Therefore, when someone proposes using positive reinforcement in a context where punishment is typically used, there is a tendency to compare positive reinforcement to bribery.

Isn't positive reinforcement when it is in the form of praise, the same as flattery?

The psychological principle behind flattery is positive reinforcement, justifying the dictum that flattery will get you everywhere. Once again the dictionary definition for the verb "to flatter" is "to compliment excessively and often insincerely".

Praise is such a powerful reinforcer that it gives rise to abuse, and for this reason the concept of flattery carries a negative meaning. It is of course often necessary to examine the motives behind flattery and not take it at face value.

Psychologists generally try to use more praise than is the norm in order to harness the power of positive reinforcement and make the world a more pleasant place in which to live. Best is adopt a rule of thumb in employing praise. Avoid using praise in a forced manner and instead praise ONLY when you think to that your child has done something well or at least better than before. In this way praise is sincere and flattery is avoided. As such the rule for praise, "if you think it, then say it" allows you to praise more often without the insincerity associated with flattery.

Next month: How Negative Reinforcement adds to Behaviour disorders?

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