Saturday, February 9, 2013

Reinforcement: Class Update

It is the fourth week of behavior modification class and I'm learning a few new things! I'll point them out to you as we review what Reinforcement and Extinction (and no I don't mean dinosaurs!) have to do with behavior.

Lets say my roommate rarely does the dishes (well its true) and I wanted for him to increase how often he does the dishes. As we learned last week when we want a behavior to occur more often but it is not occurring as much as we would like, it to it is called behavioral deficit. Whereas if the cleaning behavior occurred too much we would call it occurring in behavioral excess (wouldn't that be nice!?).

Because our goal is to increase his dish washing behavior the term applied here is Reinforcement. This means that no matter in what situation we are in, if we want out birds to say "I love you" more, increase our attendance at the gym, or have out roommate wash more dishes. We call any event that happens after a behavior, that increases that behavior, reinforcement. Remember that the key to Operant Conditioning is that behavior is only ever modified after if happens, not before it happens. If a behavior starts due to some stimulus (aka a dog drools when it smell food) then it is known as Respondent Conditioning which was discussed in the post "An Introduction to the Field of Behavior Modification". It is important to know the difference because if you don't you may end up changing the wrong behavior.

A common confusion about the word reinforcement is that people think it means "good!" when in fact it has nothing to do with "good". Once again reinforcement just means to make a behavior occur more often. For example, I tend to slouch when I'm typing, if you wanted to stop me from slouching a sharp poke in the center of my shoulder blades would get me to stop slouching really quickly! So my behavior of sitting up straight is increased, aka reinforced! That sharp poke isn't exactly "good" to me now is it? Yet it is a form of reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement
Ok, so reinforcement just means to have a behavior occur more often. Coolie-oh. So whats this idea about Positive Reinforcement? Again we run into the problem of people thinking that positive means good! Wooaaaah cowboy lets not go there! When behaviorists are feeling a little lazy they take a shorthand approach to writing Positive Reinforcement as R+. You see that plus sign? Think math. But don't worry because if you are like me math is something you try to avoid when you can. When you see that ( + ) it means something is added to the situation. And we will only ever be adding or subtracting one item from a situation at any given time, so no complex math here!

My goal is to have my roommate clean up more often. So an example of Positive Reinforcement would be to make him his favorite dinner every time he does the dishes. Dinner is added ( + ) and if he washes the dishes more as a result then that is the reinforcement (R).

Negative Reinforcement
So reinforcement can be positive by adding something to the environment. I bet you can guess what come next, Negative Reinforcement (R-). Again negative does not mean "bad" instead negative mean "to take away" or "to remove" just like in basic subtraction in math.

Another way to have my roommate clean up more often is to constantly nag him to clean the dishes. He wants the nagging to stop, so his intentions is to remove the nagging ( - ). If he chooses to remove the nagging by doing the dishes then that is reinforcement (R) of the dish washing behavior.

But as you can see there could be side-effects of me implementing R-. He could get angry or frustrated at me, he could end up trying to escape or avoid the dishes by arguing with me, and if I continue to rant he may just give up arguing and be forced into a state of "Learned Helplessness" (at which point the R- has turned into Positive Punishment, but we are not there yet).

Summing it Up
All of these scenarios are seen as Operant Behavior because essentially the increasing of his cleaning behavior was influenced by the consequence of reinforcement. The earliest observations of Reinforcement where described by Thorndike as The Law of Effect when he placed a cat in a wooden crate and observed how cats learned to get out through a complex series of behaviors by turning latches an rubbing against string. At first the cats escaped by through a long process of attempting different behaviors, when the right behaviors happened the cats got out and as expected, those behaviors occurred faster each time the cat was placed in the box. In other words the cats learned through the principle of reinforcement.

Now that we know behavior can be deliberately changed we also must be aware that it can be changed unintentionally. Every day our pets, coworkers, boyfriend/girlfriend, spouse, roommate and children's behavior is being changed and reinforced by us! The only reason a behavior ever occurs is because it has been reinforced, and we are the likely culprits of both good and bad behavior. Keep this in mind as you go about your day and challenge yourself to imagine the reinforcement behind the behaviors you see.

Fly higher every day!

Copyright 2013 Caitlin Bird
The Sequential Psittacine Blog

Miltenberger, Raymond. Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. 5th. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2011. 1-16. Print.
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