Does Positive Reinforcement Really Work?

Anyone who has studied education, business, parenting, or spent any significant time in a leadership role has probably come across the phrase “positive reinforcement.” For some reason the mere mention of this phrase seems to inspire an intense degree of animosity and derision with certain people. They will tell you that it simply does not work and instead makes people feel entitled to praise and rewards they do not deserve. On the other side, a tremendous amount of research from behavioral psychologists has been revealing positive reinforcement to be a powerful tool for behavior modification.

So what exactly is meant by the phrase “positive reinforcement?” The word “positive” in this context refers to something that is delivered to the subject (rather than removed) and “reinforcement” something that encourages (rather than discourages) a particular behavior. In other words, “positive reinforcement” is the act of providing a reward in exchange for a desired behavior.

Does this imply that negative reinforcement is the act of providing a punishment in exchange for an undesired behavior? No it does not. Unfortunately, the phrase negative reinforcement is often misused in this way. To provide negative reinforcement means simply to take away a punishment when confronted with a desirable behavior. The act of providing punishment in exchange for undesirable behavior is called positive punishment. Likewise, the act of taking away a reward when confronted with an undesirable behavior is called negative punishment.

What is the best way for teachers to encourage a desirable behavior in a student? Should we provide rewards when they do good things, or should we provide punishment when they do bad things? The empirical evidence on this question is overwhelming. Rewards provide stronger and more permanent changes to a subject’s behavior than punishments. These effects have been shown for everything from laboratory mice to zoo animals and from domesticated pets to human beings of all ages and mental capacities.

So why do so many teachers complain that positive reinforcement doesn’t seem to work? Figuring out an effective reward can sometimes be tricky. Each student is different. For some a reward might be a shiny sticker, piece of candy, or colorful badge that can be prominently displayed. However, for many students these types of rewards are utterly meaningless. Finding an effective reward usually involves getting to know a particular student extremely well. For some students, a reward might involve letting them attempt a piece they’ve always wanted to play. For others it might involve special recognition in front of their peers. Some students crave attention, and others crave independence.

Perhaps the simplest reward that we so often neglect as teachers is verbal praise. Genuine heartfelt compliments tend to go further with most students than many of us often realize. I have watched too many teachers over the years completely ignore students when they finally do something right. However, they are usually quick to let students know when they get things wrong. Over the course of time, this tends to frustrate and demotivate students.

Many teachers have told me that they have no problem with positive reinforcement, but they still believe that some degree of punishment is necessary for negative behavior. There is a natural logic to this way of thinking. Wouldn’t combining rewards with punishment produce the best possible result? The answer, according to most available research, is an emphatic no.

So what is the problem with punishment? Aren’t penalties and repercussions necessary to fully motivate people? Don’t children learn not to touch a hot stove by getting burned? Yes, pain and suffering can be a powerful motivator. The problem here is that authority figures are not able to effectively administer these types of cruel and unusual punishments.

A hot stove can permanently injure someone. However, an authority figure trying to motivate someone to do something does not actually want to severely hurt them. Parents don’t actually want to give their children broken limbs, concussions, or etc as punishments for disobeying rules. Instead, they have to rely on something else: fear and intimidation. Parents who use punishment tend to rely on threats rather than actual violence as a means of punishment. As soon as the child figures out that these threats are mostly empty, the potential benefits of punishment based motivation disappear completely.

In other words, it is not punishment itself but rather the threat of punishment that actually works. Once punishments are actually delivered and are not as terrifying as they initially sounded, the threat level needs to increase. Eventually no authority figure, no matter how strict, can deliver a strong enough threat to still scare anyone into compliance. This is ultimately how punishment systems break down and stop working.

The only type of punishment that has been proven somewhat effective is usually called a “correction.” The idea of a correction is not to inflict pain/suffering but simply to let the student know they are moving in the wrong direction and to refocus them toward that reward. Corrections only work when teamed with powerful rewards. It is still the reward that is the ultimate motivator, not the correction itself.

If the right reward is presented, students will often climb mountains to get it. With rewards, a teacher can keep raising the bar. “Yes last month you were able to get this reward for practicing 3 days a week. If you want that same reward again you will have to practice 5 days a week now.” The reward is always more meaningful than the threat of punishment.

I think the important question for every teacher, boss, parent, or leader of any variety to ask themselves on a regular basis is: “am I primarily trying to motivate people via rewards or punishments?” If you are already using reward based motivation, then ask yourself, “are these rewards generic and meaningless, or am I using a variety of rewards that appeal to the individual motivations of each person I am trying to motivate?” If you are using a punishment based system, ask yourself if your punishments are mainly corrective (focusing the person toward a reward) or punitive (trying to inflict pain/suffering).

Lastly, reward based systems are always the more humane option. If you are motiving individuals primarily with rewards, they tend to enjoy what they are doing and have positive feelings about their authority figures. If you are motiving individuals primarily with punishments, they will tend to hate what they are doing and have very negative feelings about their authority figures. Please keep that in mind the next time you get angry at your students, employees, or children for not doing what you wanted. It might just make all the difference for you in the long run!

P.S. My next post will be intended for all the recent and soon-to-be high school and college graduates out there who are likely fretting to some degree about their future. I have some practical advice for all of you that I wish someone would have told me years ago. If you would like to make sure you don’t miss this or any future blog posts, please subscribe to this blog with your email address on the top right of this page.

2 Comments

  1. Jan Kagarice on December 29, 2016 at 3:11 pm

    Greg, I really appreciate and enjoy your writing. If you have not yet studied the Montessori Methodology, I think you would be very inspired by her approach.

    • Greg on December 31, 2016 at 12:52 am

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I have studied Montessori only briefly in education classes, but I always felt sympathetic to her approach. At your recommendation I will be sure to research more of her ideas and educational strategies.

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