Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The House Always Wins: Behaviorism, or Why We Do What We Do How We Do, Part 1

Okay, I had fun writing the title for this entry.  This entry is probably not going to change anyone’s life, but it should be fun.  I’m going to break down the concept of behaviorism.  Put the pillow away, this is actually interesting!  Behavior simply means how we act, particularly in regards to others. Behaviorism is one of those terms that gets tossed around with a remarkable level of inaccuracy.  Two specific terms that are used interchangeably are “reinforcement” and “punishment.”
Reinforcement means that the desired behavior is addressed, punishment means that the undesired behavior is addressed.  See? Easy!  Okay, there’s more to it than that.  
Here’s where it gets trickier: There’s a positive way and a negative way to reinforce or punish.  This sounds like the positive way is good, and the negative way is wrong, but this is not correct.  This is another way behaviorism terms get misused.  Positive means adding something, Negative means taking something away.  
What that leaves us with are four categories: Positive reinforcement, Negative reinforcement, Positive punishment, and Negative punishment.  
Here’s how each category works when we combine the definitions:
Positive reinforcement: Positive means adding something, reinforcement means addressing the desired behavior.  Put them together, and you get adding something to address the desired behavior.  I can rephrase that, and simplify it into one word: Reward.  Examples of positive reinforcement are sticker charts when the child does her chores, money for the child’s good grades, or an extra hour of TV time when the child does the dishes.  See?  Kid does something good, kid get’s something.  
Negative reinforcement: Negative means taking something away to address a desired behavior.  It’s rewarding someone by letting them not do something.  I had a teacher in the 6th grade who gave two spelling tests per week.  We had a pretest on Monday, and a posttest on Friday.  The pretest was to introduce the words for the week, and assess the knowledge base of the class.  If anyone got one hundred percent on the pretest, they would also receive an automatic one hundred percent on the posttest, and not have to take it on Friday.  Here’s the thing: the teacher would often say during a lesson, “this is a great word for next week!”  Guess what you could count on needing to learn to spell?  So the desired behavior was that we studied our spelling words.  This was negatively reinforced by not having to take a second test on the words if we got them right on the pretest.
Now for positive punishment.  This means adding something to address undesirable behavior.  The best example I know of is a spanking.  When the kid does something wrong, they receive physical pain.  Remember the first scene of the original Ghostbuster’s movie when Dr. Venkman administered a shock every time the guy gave the wrong answer?  In the movie, Venkman explained that he was testing the effects of negative reinforcement on psychic ability.  What he was actually using was positive punishment.  *sigh*  I forgive you, Dr. V.  It’s only fair after what happened with you girlfriend turning into a dog and all.  Getting back to the example: The wrong answer accounts for the “positive” part of the definition, doing a behavior, while the shock is the “punishment.”  
Last but not least is negative punishment.  I’ll give you a minute to figure out the definition, since I’m sure you’re a pro at this by now…If you said taking something away to address an undesired behavior, here’s a positive reinforcement!  I mean, good job!  High five!  Negative punishment is evident when two children are fighting over a toy, so the caregiver takes the toy away.  Fighting is undesirable behavior, so there’s the punishment aspect.  Taking away the toy is removing something, which is what makes it negative.  
Now you’ve got the terms down.  I’m proud of you!  This is something a lot of people, including mental health professionals, get wrong.  I’m going to do the entries on behaviorism in two parts.  Tune in tomorrow when we’ll talk about what works and why.  Since behavior is simply how we act, the next time someone asks you if you’re behaving, you can honestly answer, “Yes!”  Just hope they don’t ask how.

Be well

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