We can create the warm, nurturing world we want by richly reinforcing prosocial behavior. We need families, schools, workplaces, and neighborhoods filled with praise, recognition, rewards, hugs, attention, laughter, caring, and interest. If we do that we will increase all kinds of cooperation, caring, and effort.
After nearly forty years in the behavioral sciences, doing empirical research and publishing papers in important (harrumph, harrumph) journals, I have a reaction to writing this: that it will seem so loose and unscientific. All you need is love! Sure. Right. That song was written forty years ago, but the world doesn’t seem a whole lot better.
But there are two things to consider. First, forty years of behavioral science research shows that positive reinforcement is essential for human wellbeing. And, “love” is a pretty good approximation to what we are talking about. Not a love that flows from feeling good about the other person—like in a romance, but a love that involves caring for, supporting, listening to the other person even when it takes some effort. More like the love a mother shows an infant.
Second, if we haven’t reached the world that the Beatles were singing about, it isn’t because love won’t work, but because we still need to get loving practices out there. I think we are making progress.
Every effective parenting program or school-based program to increase positive behavior primarily involves increasing positive reinforcement for prosocial behavior. Parents have learned to use simple rewards, like stickers, as well as praise, and just time spent with their children to help children learn virtually everything a child needs to learn—dressing themselves, doing homework, doing chores, cooperating with others, and much more.
Or consider the Good Behavior Game. Teachers reward teams of students for brief periods of on-task, cooperative behavior. The rewards are as simple as a little extra recess time. The game dramatically increases children’s cooperation and concentration. Shep Kellam and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins University used the game in first grade classrooms in Baltimore inner-city schools. In their randomized controlled trial where some classrooms got the game and others didn’t, they found that the kids who got the game had less drug abuse, committed fewer crimes, and were less likely to be depressed when they were adults! A little reinforcement for prosocial behavior in first grade changed the entire life trajectory of some of these children!
There is a movement around the world to make schools more reinforcing. It is called Positive Behavior Support or PBS. Schools that do PBS, teach a small number of rules about positive behavior and set up a system to reward students. Rob Horner of the University of Oregon, College of Education tells me that more than 7,000 schools in the U.S. have implemented it.
The role of reinforcement in human behavior is the most solid fact we have in behavioral science research. But we still haven’t gotten this key insight firmly established in the culture. I think this is partly because of the way that B.F. Skinner promoted it (“We can determine behavior!”) and mostly because our culture is so focused on punishing behavior we don’t want. Even people who understand how important reinforcement is, hesitate to call it that. They talk about “encouragement.” They have been punished for saying “reinforcement!”
But it is time to come out of the closet and get people talking about reinforcement. How can we get more of it in the world? How can we shift from punishing behavior we don’t like (which does not work well to deal with problem behavior and does great harm to many people) to reinforcing behavior we want?
Let every school board make increasing reinforcement the mission of every school. Let city councils find ways to increase praise, recognition, and reward of its citizens. Let every workplace reward hard work, cooperation, and innovation.
So what can you do? Start praising, appreciating, commenting on behavior you like. Advocate that others do so and reinforce them when they do. (Watch out, though. You may find that you will quickly come round to criticizing people for not reinforcing! That is not reinforcing. It is punishing!)
Look for instances where people are encouraging reinforcement and share them with others. For example, see the Free Hugs video. Thirty seven million people have seen it so far. Or check out James Taylor’s “Shower the People You Love with Love,” which he sang at the pre-Inaugural event at the Lincoln Memorial.
I invite you to share with readers of this blog, instances of positive reinforcement. What have you done or experienced that illustrates the value of positive reinforcement. Who showed interest in your effort or praised you at a key time in your life and how did it help you. Who did you reinforce and what happened? How can we make reinforcement the cornerstone of the more nurturing society we want to build?
Tags: Reinforce Behavior