Why Positive Reinforcement Matters


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In psychology, positive reinforcement is any result applied to an organism that will further strengthen the future behaviour of that organism when that behaviour has been preceded by a certain antecedent stimulus. This reinforcing effect can be measured in terms of a higher rate of response, a longer time, shorter duration, or even shorter latency. It is most commonly associated with reward, but positive reinforcement can also occur through avoidance of a certain behaviour or even positive punishment. Positive reinforcements are most commonly used in training people to increase their self-control and help them make the decision to better themselves.

How do we know that positive reinforcement works? When we see something that is gratifying, that is a reward, we often feel a stronger desire to repeat the behaviour that gave us the reward. This makes perfect sense if you think about it. After all, it would be difficult to stay in control of your self-control when you are constantly getting rewards for doing things that you don’t like! While there may be times that we don’t want to take the time to practice self-discipline or when we are frustrated because we don’t seem to be able to get a task done, giving ourselves a small pat on the back from knowing that you took the time to do your best is good for your mental health.

It seems that we use negative reinforcement much more often than positive reinforcement. Although we are told to use positive reinforcement in many situations, it seems we use it too often when we are conditioning our children. Using negative reinforcement such as screaming at a child who has made a mistake, hitting or yelling at a child, or telling a child who is trying to lose weight that they will have to lose weight in order to improve their condition, may actually make the condition worse. Positive reinforcement can be used in many instances where our children need help but are trying to improve their performance. For example, if a child needs help with homework but is not really trying, the parent can give a monetary reward or even talk to the child privately to encourage them to continue to do their homework.

When we use operant conditioning, we can effectively change a person’s behaviour by changing the way that they interpret the consequences of their actions. For example, if we hit a child who is talking to another child as the sole attention of the class, the child who receives the negative attention will think that their friend is enjoying their time, and therefore they will talk more, and talk harder, and talk even louder, therefore increasing the likelihood of the other child saying or doing something unacceptable. Conversely, if we reward that same child for quiet time, they will increase the amount of silent time, and therefore the likelihood of the other child doing or saying unacceptable things. Thus, by using operant conditioning, we can change the behaviour of a person by changing the consequences of their actions.

While we do want to shape children by using negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement, the fact is that it is not always possible. Sometimes we can not avoid our Secondary Reinforcers, and we must resort to negative punishment in order to remove that unwanted behaviour. However, by understanding why a person does what they do, we can often avoid resorting to harsh negative reinforcement, or by removing the allure of the Secondary Reinforcers, which means we can stop them from achieving their goals, and thereby improve their behaviour. When you try this method of self-socialization with your children, you will see that it works and that they really do like spending time with you. So teach your child to get along better with their friends, without resorting to negative reinforcement.

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