How to harness the power of positive reinforcement

… how behavioural experiments a hundred years ago can teach us how to manage the dark and bright side of our brain’s wiring in today’s technology-dominated world.

In his famous work with dogs Pavlov (first published 1897) was able to induce salivation without the need for food to be present.  These findings were developed and extended by Thorndike (1898 onwards) and Skinner (1938 and onwards) into theories of behaviour control in many species called “operant conditioning”.  These theories, now fully proven, describe one of the most powerful dynamics in animal and human psychology.  Operant conditioning is hard-wired into us, so there’s nothing we can do to change it.  

However, beyond the day-to-day application of reinforcement and punishment in training dogs, raising children and in creating motivation and compliance in the workplace, its subtle and damaging powers pervade our day-to-day life, largely out of our awareness, in the form of negative reinforcement.  On the other hand, with a little practice, we can use it’s sibling, positive reinforcement, as an antidote to improve our performance, relationships and general state of well-being.

Four types of conditioning that drive behaviour

Let’s take a closer look at operant conditioning. As seen in the table below, behaviour changes according to four different stimuli: Reprimand; Penalty; Encouragement and Escape.

Reprimand and Penalty both result in a reduction in behaviour.  

A Reprimand is something unpleasant being added.  That could be a rat hearing a loud noise whenever it presses a lever in the laboratory, a puppy being told “NO” for chewing a shoe or, in our own world, getting honked or shouted at for bad driving / behaviour. 

A Penalty involves something nice being taken away as a result of the behaviour.  An example would be a laboratory rat losing food pellets whenever it presses a lever, or a human losing their driving licence for repeated motoring offences.

Encouragement and Escape both result in an increase in behaviour.  

With Encouragement, something nice is added as a result of a behaviour: a rat would get its food pellets when it presses a lever, a dog gets a snack for walking to heel; we get loyalty points in return for buying a coffee.  

Escape, or negative reinforcement, involves taking away something unpleasant as a result of the behaviour. Our rat would learn that it can stop the loud, unpleasant noise when it presses a lever, while we might have a drink or a sugary snack to numb the effects of a bad day; retreat to social media rather than tackling the more urgent issues in our in-tray or binge that mini- series rather than preparing for a crucial conversation

And therein lies the problem …

Build your awareness of Negative Reinforcement
This phenomenon of negative reinforcement is at the heart of some deep conditions that we face as a society today such as substance abuse / addiction, social withdrawal, social media addiction, anxiety and depression.  On a day-to-day basis it exists in all of us in more subtle ways that might be less threatening but nonetheless, have a significant impact on our well-being and performance such as prevarication, poor time management and social avoidance.

Distraction dulls the pain
The reinforcement occurs when we use small things or distractions to take our minds off an emotional pain (felt or anticipated) which is usually unexpressed / sub-conscious. By distracting ourselves, the pain goes away momentarily – the escape – and this reward is the source of the reinforcement.

Importantly however, this is followed by a sense of guilt at not having dealt with the problem, (made worse by a hangover), coupled with the knowledge of the fact that the underlying problem is still there and may be getting worse because of the lack of attention.

How to escape the escape

Like in martial arts the answer lies in using the power of one’s adversary and turning it to our advantage. Use positive reinforcement to instil good habits rather than bad ones. Instead of using distraction to make a problem temporarily go away, take action (even a small step) towards resolving the underlying issue and then reward yourself for taking that step.

Follow this simple three step process for immediate results!

  1. Break the underlying challenge down into small steps.
  2. Resolve to take the first step as soon as practically possible.
  3. Reward yourself – once you have taken the first step, reward the behaviour (perhaps time for that nice walk, a coffee or a glass of wine).

Reward follows progress
The crucial thing to note is that the reward follows properly dealing with the issue and making genuine progress. This is a positive reinforcement (encouragement) for a job completed; a very different feeling from a negative reinforcement of a worry taken away through distraction.

We all fall under the spell of negative reinforcement; it’s a human condition that for the most part is not overly damaging to our personal and professional lives.  However, in excess and over time, or in crisis situations it can have a detrimental impact on outcomes and reputation.

Thanks to Pavlov and his dogs, we now know what to do about it.  Build good habits to harness and enjoy the power of positive reinforcement.

Written By Ivan Schofield

Mr. Ivan Schofield is a Managing Partner for Coaching at Metin Mitchell & Company and founder of leadership development firm &become.