Welcome to day two of behaviorism! Now that you’ve mastered the terminology, we get to discuss what works, and why.
I’ll get right to the point: Reinforcement works to change behavior. Punishment does not. When a behavior is reinforced, it means that the subject has to do the correct behavior in order to earn the reward. It doesn’t matter if the reward is to earn something good or take away something bad. The desired behavior still happens. Punishment, on the other hand, does not work. The subject still changes their behavior, but they do it to avoid punishment. They may still do the same behavior, but they’ll get better at not getting caught. Since last time little Billy hit his sister and left a mark, next time, he’ll pull her hair.
So now that we know that we should to reinforce behaviors that we want, let’s talk about how we go about doing it. First, it has to be something the subject wants. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about adult humans or puppies, this is how behaviorism works. If we know that little Bella loves magic markers but couldn’t care less about stickers, then magic markers are going to be the reward. If we made the reward stickers, she’d have no reason to try to earn them. Some people call this finding their currency. Then we establish with the subject how to earn the reward. Bella has to wash dishes four nights this week. Keep it simple. It has to be observable and measurable. Star charts, or some sort of visual tool, are important. The subject will see their stars begin to accumulate. This is a great way to combat frustration in the instances she doesn’t earn her star. Stay focused on the positive. “You didn’t earn your star today, but you did it two nights in a row before this! You’re half way there!” At the end of the week, we continue to focus on the positive, whether she’s earned the reward or not. “You did the dishes three nights this week! Great job! Just do that plus one more next week so you can get your markers!” Keep the focus on what she has done, not what she missed.
Once she’s got that down pat, we raise the bar. Now she has to set the table and wash the dishes four nights a week. The parent can decide what the new system will be. Does she have to do both to earn a star, or is it one star per task? How many for the new reward? Bella’s room is going to be overflowing with markers pretty soon. Bigger tasks earn bigger rewards, but may also take longer to earn. Also, keep it appropriate to age and capability. A teenager may be required to mow the lawn and do his own laundry to earn a ride to the mall or the movies, for example.
Now let's talk about how often a reward is given. At first, it is every time. Then over time, we space out the reward schedule. But the most effective reward schedule is random. The behavior is praised every time, but the reward may or may not be given. It doesn't just work on dogs and children. I bet you are drawn in by intermittent rewards. If you don't believe me, go plunk some quarters into a slot machine. You are not going to win every time. In fact, you will lose more often than you win. But every so often, you will get enough of a reward to keep you interested in playing. So you pull that lever again, and again, and then just one more time, really! Okay, one more...and three out of five match! You didn't even come close to the jackpot, but it's enough to make you think, "just one more." It's the same thought process that gets people buying lottery tickets. Every time the jackpot gets high enough to be newsworthy, the next story will be about the lines out the door at the local convenience store. The odds of any given ticket matching all six numbers in the Powerball game are one in 292 million. We know this, yet just the opportunity for the intermittent reward is enough to keep us coming back every time. Intermittent reward also makes us believe unrelated events could be related. According to research by Monica Wahdwa, Assistant Professor of Marketing at INSEAD, a person who matches five out of six numbers is more likely to play again than someone who only matches two out of six. We attribute this to luck, when really, it's purely random. The lottery officials know this. They know you are going to keep buying tickets. The casinos know this. They know you're going to keep pulling the lever. You're going to play just one more hand. The house always wins.
There you have it: intermittent positive reinforcement at random intervals. It works on training dogs, children, and you!