Imagine a hungry lab rat in a cage. The rat runs around the cage and at some point just happens to press against a bar that’s set up to one side. Immediately, a food pellet comes rolling down the chute into the cage, and the rat eats it. What is the rat likely to do now? Press the bar again, of course. The presentation of the food pellet in response to the rat’s pressing the bar is said, by psychologists, to reinforce the behavior. The appearance of the food pellet is called a positive reinforcement, since the likelihood of the behavior is increased by the introduction of something pleasant.
Now consider another rat in another cage. Let’s suppose that there is some high-pitched noise that is unpleasant to the rat, being continuously generated. The rat runs around the cage and at some point just happens to press against a bar that’s set up to one side. Immediately, the unpleasant noise stops. What is the rat likely to do the next time the noise appears? Press the bar again, of course. The cessation of the noise in response to the rat’s pressing the bar reinforces the bar-pressing behavior. It’s called a negative reinforcement, since the likelihood of the behavior is increased by the removal of something unpleasant.
Teenager Sally’s room is a mess despite her parents’ repeated nagging and threats of punishment. Finally, Sally takes an hour away from her favorite video game and cleans up her room. Her parents immediately stop nagging and threatening as long as her room remains tidy. What is Sally at least somewhat more likely to do in the future? Clean her room, of course. The cessation of nagging and threatening in response to Sally’s cleaning her room is a negative reinforcement, since the likelihood of her future room-cleaning behavior is increased by the removal of something unpleasant.
But now suppose that Sally’s parents, once Sally has cleaned her room, simply switch to nagging and threatening about her homework, or her grades, or the umpteen other things they wish Sally would do differently. How is Sally likely to respond? Pretty much like the rat in the cage if the noise doesn’t change when he presses the bar: No reinforcement; no learning.
Raising kids and adolescents is no easy task, and it’s not difficult to understand how we might all lose opportunities to negatively reinforce behaviors that we wish our youngsters to repeat. So it may help to remember that our youngsters are similar, in this respect, to the lab rat. If we want to reward, or reinforce, them for doing something we’ve been nagging them to do, we stand a better chance of doing so if we resist the urge to simply shift to nagging about something else when they’ve just done something we wish to reinforce!
Dr. Stone, a clinical psychologist, is an Assistant Professor of Psychology in Clinical Psychiatry at Weill Medical College of Cornell University, and Director of the Dialectical Behavior Therapy Program for Self-Injuring Adolescents at the Westchester Division of New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, New York. He resides in Pawling with his wife, Susan, and their family.