The Virtue of Positive Reinforcement: Leading, Motivating and Instructing in Healthier Ways

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B.F._Skinner_at_Harvard_circa_1950Psychologist, Harvard professor, and father of positive reinforcement, B.F. Skinner conducted numerous studies dating back to as early as 1938 that gathered extensive data on the effects of positive reinforcement. Skinner coined the phrase operant conditioning, which in layman’s terms is basically changing a behavior by giving a reward to elicit the desired response. Therefore, the opposite of positive reinforcement is punishment.

Skinner conducted a famous experiment on a lab rat to demonstrate the power of positive reinforcement. He would reward the hungry animal with food each time the rat would accidentally trigger a lever. The rat understood rather quickly that as long as it nudged the lever, food would appear. The rat repeated the desired behavior over and over again. I’ve even done this with my own two little dogs, Abraham and Abigail. I tried to refrain from spanking them as puppies, though a couple of times I did. I found that spanking them was counter-productive, and as a result, during the terrible “puppy phase,” they would still act out. So, I realized that instead of spanking them, I needed to try something more reassuring and positive. Abraham was very cute as a puppy (and still is), and he learned quickly from my new way of teaching him. Anytime he went outside to go potty (we call it “boomies”) I would praise him and give him a treat. I did the exact same thing with Abigail, my 5-pound Japanese Chin.

AbrahamAs a result, to this day every time they go potty outside and we come back in from our walk. They both sit right at the kitchen and wait for me. They watch me closely as they wait for their treat. I have never stopped rewarding them. Every single time my babies go potty outside I tell them what a good job they did. I even taught Abraham how to do “patty cake.” I hold up my hand and he can “patty cake” with each paw touching each to my hands. He also rolls and does a “walk,” in reality more of a hop, on his back legs. He can actually sustain his walk for an impressive 30 seconds or longer. Abigail does the “ballerina” dance. She knows how to sit and also spin on her back legs like a ballerina. She taught herself that trick. When people meet them, the first thing they say is that Abraham is the happiest, most lovable, and sweet dog they’ve ever met. Abigail is very calm and shy when she meets new people. In a nutshell, I get so many praises for how well my dogs are behaved. I believe it all started with rewarding and praising them. They may not be able to speak verbally, but they definitely understand the words “good job!”

There is a fine line with how much we reward our youth, for example, as some skeptics claim that the problem with the Y-Generation is that they get rewarded and awarded with medals just for participating in a team sport. So, they are unable to handle real-life rejection or losing and they don’t understand the concept of failure or the value of learning from it. As a New York Times article points out that losing is good for you and that automatic rewards leads to the possibility of less improvement.  iStock_000003804759XSmall-300x199

However, more studies have countered that there are much more severe ramifications that result from punitive disciplinary measures such as constant fault finding, criticism, blaming, shaming and punishment. Learning, teaching, instructing, and disciplining is a fact of life. We get disciplined, we discipline, we learn, we teach, we grow, make mistakes and learn from them or we don’t, so we wind up in another similar situation until we finally do learn from the errors of our ways.

We are told we have to learn from constructive criticism, that we need “thick skin.” Life can be tough and, yes, we do need to toughen up. But most of us can benefit, thrive, learn faster, and become more productive with positive reinforcement. A study conducted by the Ministry of Social Development concluded that, “Long considered an effective, and even necessary, means of socializing children, physical punishment has been revealed to be a predictor of a wide range of negative developmental outcomes.” It continued to point out that, “Physical punishment is associated with increased child aggression, antisocial behavior, lower intellectual achievement, poorer quality of parent–child relationships, mental health problems (such as depression), and diminished moral internalization.”

Family enjoying meal at homeI once worked with a social services organization that implemented positive reinforcement as a structure to help troubled and dysfunctional families. A team made up of youth and parent mentors along with a case worker and a psychologist would come into a home with a white board and literally have a meeting just to write down all of the good things each family member accomplished that week. By utilizing positive affirmative reassurance rather than sitting down to discuss everything the family did wrong, researchers at the facility discovered that the family excelled tremendously. The kids who were “this close” to being sent to juvenile hall or being removed from the home actually did better. The parents that were punitive or negative in their discipline began to become their children’s mentors and relied more on positive verbal affirmations. As a result, I believe they also became better parents.

employeeappreciationEvery profession has its own culture, environment, vibe, lingo, and communication style or approach. These may or may not be in your control. What you can control, however, is what sort of company you want to work for and how you want to be treated. Many businesses work off of bonus structures as a reward, and they also provide employee of the month or year awards. There are coffee and gift cards given out for a job well done. While these are all simple things, that doesn’t require a ton of money. They are a part of a reward based structure where individuals are acknowledged for their skills and talents. Many schools from elementary to even colleges and universities are beginning to also adopt the reward-based system for behavior modification and motivating students in learning environments that are positive, not punitive. You can also decide how you will teach your children, dogs, cats, and etc. You do have control over the type of person you want to be, how you want to be treated in your current profession, and the type of leader you want to become.


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