Reinforcement & Behaviorism

I’ve been training myself in behaviorism in the past 6 months. It’s mind-bending and forces me to look at my life from a completely new perspective. There’s so much I’ve already learned, and there’s still so much more left to learn. Rather than tell you everything I’m learning, I’m going to focus on just one aspect. This week I’m going to tell you how I removed the structures that created negative reinforcement and punishment in my life.

Reinforcer = any stimulus that causes a behavior to happen again, or more frequently.

Negative Reinforcer = any stimulus that acts as a reinforcer when it stops. (ex – the buzzing sound in your car will stop when you put your seatbelt on)

Punishment = any stimulus that causes a behavior to stop, or happen less frequently.

The first few books I read were written by animal trainers; mainly, dolphin and orca trainers. They used only positive reinforcement because punishment was dangerous. It’s easy to get away with punishing smaller animals like dogs, cats, or birds, but if a trainer punished a dolphin, orca, elephant, or any other large animal, then once that trainer was alone with the animal, the trainer was in danger: the animal would beat and batter the trainer, risking injury and death.

After 3 months of reading and seeing a few immediate impacts of attempting to apply it to my life, I took a step back to observe what I was already doing. I was successful at smaller objectives, like having people hug me when they saw me, or saying “hello” when I entered the room, but if I wanted to move beyond these small experiments and allow it to really soak into every aspect of my everyday life, down to the smallest detail. 

I took an observant look at myself, noticing my automatic reactions as life just happened around me. What I saw shocked me: I had a natural inclination towards punishment. It was the first and strongest response I had. Something else I noticed: everyone else was doing the same thing (except for a special few who also happened to be trained in either psychology or behaviorism). 

Since then I’ve realized there are certain things I’ll need to do if I’m going to effectively undo my default training of using punishment, and instead use reinforcement:

  • Remove as many due dates and promised results to tasks as possible. These are the bases for negative reinforcement and punishment.
    • Example: I will have 10 new coaching clients by March 1.
  • Instead of due dates and promised results, place celebrations and reinforcers upon reaching certain results.
    • Example: I will give myself a 1-week vacation once I get 10 new coaching clients.
    • Do you notice there’s no due date? And there’s a reinforcer!
    • There’s no punishment for not reaching it. I just don’t get the reinforcer.
  • No matter how nicely I use a punisher, no matter how good or connected it helps them feel, if my action is intended to stop or decrease the frequency of something, it is intended to be a punishment.
  • Switching from punishment to reinforcement requires an entire mindset shift.
    • Punishment has me looking for what I don’t want, and punishing when that comes up.
    • Reinforcement has me looking for what I do want, and reinforcing it when it happens.
    • My mind is not set up right now to look for what I want, and will require work and attention to alter my thinking habits at this most basic level.

I am in the middle of this transformation and training of myself. So far it’s made my work a lot less stressful, and I’m working more often and more effectively. I’m accomplishing more with less effort, and I’m just getting started.

If you’d like to join me in this journey, women can register for the How to Train a Man workshop. Men, contact me to see how you can get involved. 


Either way, if you just want to talk to me about it, you can schedule a 25-minute call here:

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Recommended further reading:

Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor

What Shamu Taught Me about Life, Love, and Marriage, by Amy Sutherland

Bringing Out the Best in People, by Aubrey C Daniels (reinforcement in the workplace)

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