You may not guess it to look at me, but I’m fairly well educated. One of the things I’m educated about is behavioral psychology. I’m a fan of B.F. Skinner, but I didn’t raise my kids in one of his boxes, though once in a while I think it would be nice to have a Skinner box for older kids. Not too often, though. Also, I’ve always wanted a Skinner t-shirt. But that’s a pipe dream.
In grad school I learned methods for teaching children with severe and profound disabilities. The methods are based on the principles of behaviorism, which is the only sort of psychology you can apply to people who are so thoroughly impaired. The principles apply to everyone, though, even those who are capable of lying on a couch and discussing their mothers with bearded men who have penis fixations. I never wanted a Freud t-shirt, though I expect they are relatively easy to come by.
So I know a lot about the various types of reinforcement. I’ll tell you about them, because they may be useful in your life, too.
Positive reinforcement: Any consequence of a behavior that increases the probability that the behavior will occur again. It’s easy to think of an example. If your kid whines for candy at the check out stand and you present her with a gigantic, phallic chocolate bar, you may be certain she will attempt the same maneuver on the next shopping trip.
Punishment: Could be called anti-reinforcement. Punishment is any consequence of a behavior that decreases the probability that the behavior will occur again. Once, as a young child, I was playing in the basement while my mother ironed. She had to leave the room, and before she exited she told me not to touch the iron. Really, don’t touch it, she told me. The minute she walked out I went right over and put my finger on that hot, hot iron. Verbal warnings did not deter me, but I assure you I have never touched an iron again. I have the wrinkled clothes to prove it.
Negative reinforcement: You might suspect that negative reinforcement is the same as punishment, but oh no, it is not. Negative reinforcement increases the probability that the behavior will occur again, just like positive reinforcement, but it goes about it in a different way. Negative reinforcement happens when something unpleasant stops as a result of the behavior. The classic example—parent picks up the screaming baby and the baby stops crying. The parent has been negatively reinforced for attending to the baby’s cries, and the baby has been positively reinforced for squalling. (That’s why people used to think you shouldn’t pick up a crying baby, but since a baby can’t politely ask for food, snuggles, or a clean diaper, one can’t really behavior-modify it out of crying without being abusively negligent.)
Intermittent reinforcement: Here’s where it gets tricky. Intermittent reinforcement is what you call it when the behavior gets rewarded only some of the time and unpredictably. Turns out, intermittent reinforcement is even more effective than straight, predictable positive reinforcement at causing behavior to repeat. This is the slot machine rule. Offer a maybe payoff at an unknown time and you will have vast, cavernous rooms full of people pulling levers like rats performing for treats.
We are subject to the laws that govern behavior every day of our lives. The outfit you picked out to wear today was chosen because of what happened last time you wore it. Maybe you felt comfortable and warm all day. Perhaps someone offered you a compliment. If the sweater with the gingerbread men and the ribbon bows drew a disparaging remark last December, it may never come out of the closet this year. If a restaurant serves you a spectacular meal on your first visit but an unexceptional one the next time you visit, you will likely return in hopes of getting another taste of the fabulous. And if your neighbor stops jarring your nerves with his leaf blower after you sneak into his garage and tamper with its engine, you may be negatively reinforced into a tendency to commit minor crimes for good causes.
There is a point to this post, though it may be obscured by my long-winded wind-up. Here it is: there must be a limit to the length of the intervals between rewards for intermittent reinforcement to work its magic. If you diligently perform your behavior again and again and again in hopes of obtaining a reward you haven’t received in a very long time, you will eventually give up. That’s true of you. It’s true of me. It’s true of your kids and your spouse and your friends. In psychobabble terms, that behavior will be extinguished. Why am I telling you this? If you think about what you need, and what other people need from you, I think you will know.