The Carrot or The Stick: Positive v Negative Reinforcement

The simple approach to reinforcement is either the carrot or the stick. You can lure the donkey forward with a carrot or you can try forcing it to move by hitting it with a stick. Maybe these approaches work on donkeys (doubt it!) but the fact is: you are not a donkey!

I am very familiar with positive reinforcement.  When I was freshman in college, my Intro to Pysch teacher covered it and what I thought interesting is the idea that even though negative reinforcement gets all the attention, studies show positive reinforcement is much more effective.  As a result, I went home and started using it on my dog (education in action!)  Over the years, pretty much all my dogs have been trained with positive reinforcement.  My basic approach: every time my dog (or cat) does something I want them to repeat, I give them praise and affection.  He asks to go out to pee, he’s a good boy.  He sits calmly on my lap, he’s a good boy.  The cat uses her scratch post instead of the sofa, good kitty!  When I was out of town last year, my mom babysat my dog and when she told me he was playing chase with her dog, I told her to tell him he’s a good boy.  She called back and said after she told him “good boy,” he was more enthusiastic about playing with her dog.  I told her that’s the point: once he knows he’s doing something that pleases me (and is also fun), he has more incentive to keep doing it!  That’s what positive reinforcement is supposed to do: the action becomes pleasurable because you are rewarded for it so you have much more incentive to keep doing it. 

Negative reinforcement is the opposite, of course: the pup wets on the rug and you scold and spank him. As far as pups go, it’s not really effective because the pup usually doesn’t make the connection between wetting on the rug at 10:30 a.m., you coming home at 6 and seeing it and scolding him.  As far as he’s concerned, he was happy to see you come home and you’re mad at him for being happy to see you.  This is why the positive reinforcement works better for potty-training: he goes out, pees on the lawn, and he’s a good boy.  He has incentive to wet all over the lawn because as long as he does, he’s a good boy.

But, again, you aren’t a puppy.  How does positive reinforcement work on people, and why isn’t negative reinforcement effective?  You would think associating donuts with bad feelings would make you avoid donuts much more than associating happy feelings with broccoli or exercise.  The difference is that while negative reinforcement is better at getting you to change behavior, it’s the positive reinforcement that keeps you exercising and eating the broccoli.

One of the best ways to get started changing and keeping a new habit is to use a combination of both positive and negative reinforcement.  With my dog, when he does something I want him to repeat, he’s the greatest puppy in the world (which he loves to hear) and when he does something I don’t want him to repeat, I tell him no firmly but without a lot of fuss and leave it alone.  He’s trained by now to look for the praise and he’s focused on doing things that earn him praise and, since the wrong behavior didn’t earn it, he’s moved on to something else.  For example, let’s look at workouts.  If you schedule an appointment with a trainer and if you get charged for missing that workout, that’s incentive to keep the workout (negative reinforcement), but if you are constantly praised and encouraged for your progress while at your workout, that’s also incentive to keep the appointment (positive reinforcement).  So that combination works pretty well: you don’t want to pay for a service you aren’t getting, but at the same time, each time you go, you see that you’re lifting more weight, doing more lunges and your trainer is praising your progress by telling you know how far you’ve come.  You have more incentive to keep going because you can see the benefit; if you didn’t see any benefit or the trainer wasn’t enthusiastic about your progress, eventually you would stop booking appointments to avoid the cancellation fees.  This is what happens when people make nasty comments to you about eating fast food: you don’t stop eating fast food, you just stop eating it with those people.  You avoid the negativity by changing your behavior but not necessarily changing the bad behavior.  Your goal becomes avoiding the negative result, not avoiding the negative behavior.

Most of us are frustrated because we are trying very hard to make positive changes in our behavior to improve our health but the problem is that most of us do it with negative reinforcement.  We can be our own worst enemies.  We eat a candy bar and we berate ourselves like we threw a kitten under a bus! We skip our workout and we’re the laziest, most unworthy person in the world.  We use the stick to beat ourselves over the head about how we aren’t eating healthy, we aren’t working out, we keep eating all the cookies, cupcakes and potato chips and we believe that if we keep beating ourselves, we’ll eventually change.  If our bodies showed the emotional abuse we heap on ourselves, we’d look like we were hit by a semi.  We look at ourselves in the mirror and abuse ourselves: “I’m so ugly it’s a wonder my spouse hasn’t left me.  I look like a monster.  I can’t believe how fat I am!  I’m too far gone to save.”  Any of this sound familiar?  It breaks my heart when friends post things like this online: “I got on the scale, saw I went up two pounds and couldn’t stop crying.”

This is not productive.  This is not healthy, or helpful, and your weight has nothing to do with your worth as a person. Stop beating yourself with the stick! You aren’t a donkey and it doesn’t work! If you want to change your behavior, you need to use a combination of positive and negative reinforcement with a BIG emphasis on the positive!

It’s always best to make this process as simple as possible: 1) Write out your objective simply and specifically; 2) Associate a ‘negative’ with avoiding the behavior; and 3) Associate a ‘positive’ with completing the task.

Let’s say the most important change you want to make this year is to eat more healthy foods.  Write out a simple specific objective, such as “I want to eat at least two servings of vegetables each day.”  That’s specific and it’s a change in the right direction.  So let’s say that each time you finish a day without two servings of vegetables, you put $5 in the Veggie Jar and at the end of the month or week, you give the money to your kids, you donate the money to a charity, or you use it to buy veggies- whatever- as long as the money is not going to you!  You are charging yourself for not changing the behavior!  As a positive reinforcement, let’s say that for each day you finish with two or more servings of vegetables, you get to take $5 out of the Veggie Jar, or you, your kids/ spouse put $5 in your Healthy Habit Jar and that money goes to you for a non-food treat, like a movie, a manicure, or something else you were wanting.  Don’t overlook the power of praise and encouragement either!  Remember when you were in grade school and every time you got an A on a math quiz, the teacher put a gold star on the wall chart next to your name?  You really wanted to get the A, not so you would be good at math but so that you would have as many stars as possible (and maybe beat out some of the kids you didn’t like) You can still do the same thing.  On a calendar, give yourself a gold star for each day that you hit your goals ( 2 + servings of veggies; a workout; 8 glasses of water, whatever your goal is for that month!) Looking at a calendar filling up with stars is really very encouraging.  It’s a sign of your continuing improvement there on the wall for everyone to see. Just looking at it makes you feel good about yourself and your progress. (Looking in the mirror and seeing your body getting fitter or smaller is also very encouraging.)  The calendar also has a little bit of the negative impetus as well: a calendar with only a few stars on it shows that you are not focusing on your objectives and frankly, it stings a little.  It also has the “instant gratification” effect:  the more you hit your objectives, the sooner the calendar starts filling up with stars.  “I hit my goal- another star for me! That’s three this week already! Yay, me!”

Does it seem a little  silly?  You roll your eyes, and tell yourself that you aren’t twelve years old and a chart full of stars is childish.  It worked when you were twelve because frankly it made you feel good. It reinforced your positive attitude towards hitting your objectives, whether it’s making healthy lifestyle changes or getting an A in math.  You can choose whatever positive visual reinforcement works for you but making things too complicated tends to defeat the purpose.  Seeing the days of accomplishment stack up, whether it’s stars on a calendar or money in a jar, the goal is to encourage yourself to make positive changes. Just the acknowledgement of your achievements can be emotionally uplifting and associating the positive feelings with completing the task should not be underestimated. Back to my dog, there are times when I’m very busy and he’s sitting off to the side watching me. I’m not angry, just busy, but as soon as I look up at him and say his name, he ‘smiles’ and wags his tail.  Just acknowledging him makes him happy.  Yes, you are not a dog, but you are not too far from that proud twelve year old who just got another star on the Arithmetic Aces Chart either. Don’t be ashamed to flaunt your successes- you earned those stars!

 

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