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
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
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?
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
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
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
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