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What Is a Positive Reinforcer?
A reinforcer is anything that, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again.
Memorize that statement. It is the secret of good training.
There are two kinds of reinforcers: positive and negative. A positive reinforcer is something the subject wants, such as food, petting, or praise. A negative reinforcer is something the subject wants to avoid--a blow, a frown, an unpleasant sound. (The warning buzzer in a car if you don't fasten your seat belt is a negative reinforcer.)
Behavior that is already occurring, no matter how sporadically, can always be intensified with positive reinforcement. If you call a puppy, and it comes, and you pet it, the pup's coming when called will become more and more reliable even without any other training. Suppose you want someone to telephone you--your offspring, your parent, your lover. If he or she doesn't call, there isn't much you can do about it. A major point in training with reinforcement is that you can't reinforce behavior that is not occurring. If, on the other hand, you are always delighted when your loved ones do call, so that the behavior is positively reinforced, the likelihood is that the incidence of their calling will probably increase. (Of course, if you apply negative reinforcement--"Why haven't you called, why do I have to call you, you never call me," and so on, remarks likely to annoy--you are setting up a situation in which the caller avoids such annoyance by not calling you; in fact, you are training them not to call.)
Simply offering positive reinforcement for a behavior is the most rudimentary part of reinforcement training. In the scientific literature, you can find psychologists saying, "Behavioral methods were used," or, "The problem was solved by a behavioral approach." All this means, usually, is that they switched to positive reinforcement from whatever other method they were using. It doesn't imply that they used the whole bag of tricks described in this book; they may not even be aware of them.
Yet switching to positive reinforcement is often all that is necessary. It is by far the most effective way to help the bed-wetter, for example: private praise and a hug for dry sheets in the morning, when they do occur.
Positive reinforcement can even work on yourself. At a Shakespeare study group I once belonged to I met a Wall Street lawyer in his late forties who was an avid squash player. The man had overheard me chatting about training, and on his way out the door afterward he remarked that he thought he would try positive reinforcement on his squash game. Instead of cursing his errors, as was his habit, he would try praising his good shots.
Two weeks later I ran into him again. "How's the squash game?" I asked. A look of wonder and joy crossed his face, an expression not frequently seen on Wall Street lawyers.
"At first I felt like a damned fool," he told me, "saying 'Way to go, Pete, attaboy,' for every good shot. Hell, when I was practicing alone, I even patted myself on the back. And then my game started to get better. I'm four rungs higher on the club ladder than I've ever been. I'm whipping people I could hardly take a point from before. And I'm having more fun. Since I'm not yelling at myself all the time, I don't finish a game feeling angry and disappointed. If I made a bad shot, never mind, good ones will come along. And I find I really enjoy it when the other guy makes a mistake, gets mad, throws his racquet--I know it won't help his game, and I just smile...."
What a fiendish opponent. And just from switching to positive reinforcement.
Reinforcers are relative, not absolute. Rain is a positive reinforcer to ducks, a negative reinforcer to cats, and a matter of indifference, at least in mild weather, to cows. Food is not a positive reinforcer if you're full. Smiles and praise may be useless as reinforcers if the subject is trying to get you mad. In order to be reinforcing, the item chosen must be something the subject wants.
It is useful to have a variety of reinforcers for any training situation. At the Sea World oceanariums, killer whales are given many reinforcers, including fish (their food), stroking and scratching on different parts of the body, social attention, toys, and so on. Whole shows are run in which the animals never know which behavior will be reinforced next or what the reinforcer will be; the "surprises" are so interesting for the animals that the shows can be run almost entirely without the standard fish reinforcers; the animals get their food at the end of the day. The necessity of switching constantly from one reinforcer to another is challenging and interesting for the trainers, too.
Positive reinforcement is good for human relationships. It is the basis of the art of giving presents: guessing at something that will be definitely reinforcing (guessing right is reinforcing for the giver, too). In our culture, present giving is often left to women. I even know of one family in which the mother buys all the Christmas presents to and from everyone. It causes amusement on Christmas morning, brothers and sisters saying, "Let's see, this is from Anne to Billy," when everyone knows Anne had nothing to do with it. But it does not sharpen the children's skills at selecting ways to reinforce other people.
In our culture a man who has become observant about positive reinforcement has a great advantage over other men. As a mother, I made sure that my sons learned how to give presents. Once, for example, when they were quite young, seven and five, I took them to a rather fancy store and had them select two dresses, one each, for their even younger sister. They enjoyed lolling about in the plush chairs, approving or disapproving of each dress as she modeled it. Their little sister enjoyed it too; and she had the ultimate veto power. And so, thanks to this and similar exercises, they all learned how to take a real interest in what other people want; how to enjoy finding effective positive reinforcers for the people you love.