All good parents and teachers will know that it is easier to train someone to do something than it is to train them not to do something. This is because it is much simpler to encourage and incentivise positive behaviour than it is to discourage unwanted behaviour.
Getting desirable behaviour is readily achievable through positive reinforcement. If you do that then you will receive this. Rewards can be given for behaving correctly. Within the subject’s mind, the link can be easily made between the good behaviour and the earning of a desirable reward. It’s a straightforward association where correct behaviour is driven by motivational reward.
In contrast, this positive reinforcement process does not work quite so well when you’re trying to stop a particular behaviour. It’s a much more complex thought process. As an example, consider how much easier it is to get a dog to bark than it is to stop a dog from barking.
How do you give a reward for not doing something? How does the subject know that they have not done something? How do they know what the reward they have received is for?
Some of these issues may be overcome by the explaining and reasoning of things. But what if the subject doesn’t understand? What if the subject (and the use of positive reinforcement is equally applicable in this regard) is your pet dog? How do you reason with an animal?
The best way of achieving this sort of change is to find a positive behaviour that effectively supersedes the pre-existing negative behaviour.
- To stop someone walking in the road you reward them for walking on the pavement.
- To stop someone from leaving a door open you reward them whenever they close the door.
There is a positive behaviour which can be encouraged by being rewarded. This new behaviour – driven by reward – effectively becomes the normal behaviour and the old disapproved of behaviour becomes redundant.
Of course, it would be even easier if any unwanted behaviours were not allowed to develop in the first place, or if they were, to at least nip them in the bud before they became too much of a problem. That’s because the more established a bad behaviour is then the more difficult it is to change.
Unfortunately though, such pre-emptive control may not always be possible. Sometimes established behaviours have to change – there may be new rules, new perspectives or new circumstances.
- We used to be able to run on the grass but now we have to stay on the path.
- We used to be able to eat lots of sweets but now we have to eat fruit.
- We used to be able to make lots of noise but now that we have a baby sister we have to be quiet.
As we mature, as relationships change, as society develops we have to adopt new ways of behaving. Quite often we have to abandon or disassociate ourselves from previous behaviours.
Traditionally, the usual method for stopping bad behaviour was chastisement or sanction, anything from a “telling off” to a spanking. Logically, this made sense. If you did something wrong then something unfavourable would happen to you. You received your just desserts. Bad behaviour had bad consequences. As such there was a strong deterrent effect – you would soon learn that it was not in your best interests to misbehave.
This approach is the direct opposite to reward behaviour – giving something nice when something good is done. It feeds off the same basic motivation – one action leads to a specific reaction.
Unfortunately, although the associative linkage may be the same the outcomes may not be. Through positive reinforcement, good behaviour can be made the norm; negative reinforcement does not have the same promotional effect.
When trying to engender good behaviour through the punishing of bad behaviour (especially if there is a physical element to the disciplining) it is more likely to create a climate of fear and resentment. It may – in part – be effective but it neither makes for a very good relationship, nor does it always ensure that any resulting good behaviour is firmly rooted.
It is far more effective to focus on positive drivers for the establishment of good behaviour.
The trouble is that this may require the parent or teacher to think and work harder to find the positive element to encouraging a different type of behaviour. It can be too easy to highlight the negativity and to say “Don’t do that” or “That’s very naughty” or “Stop doing ……” Yet without any positive element, such chastisements will only focus on and reinforce the negative behaviour.
In seeking to encourage correct behaviour through positive direction there is one other significant factor that should be borne in mind. Most children (and also most pet dogs) have an overwhelming desire to gain the approval of their parents. They want to please. If they can therefore be persuaded that certain behaviours generate this approval then those are the behaviours that they will continue to follow.
This, of course, brings us back to reward as being positive reinforcement. A squeal of delight, some appreciative words, an approving smile are all forms of reward. They will all help to foster that sought after behaviour. Rewarding a child can really be that easy!
And finally, we need to consider the wider lessons that can be learnt. It is perhaps rather strange that we may know all this and we may even recognise the benefits and value of positive reinforcement in the raising of our children, but we are generally not so enlightened when it comes to our wider society and the treatment of those that commit crime and other offences. For such wrongdoings we are much more likely to demand harsher punishments.
Perhaps society needs to be a bit more considerate of its messaging. Perhaps, as individuals, we need to extend our ways of doing things.
Positive reinforcement is the most effective mechanism for achieving desirable behaviours between individuals and within society as a whole. We just need to ensure that its benefits are more widely recognised; we just need to ensure that it is more widely adopted.