Reinforcement is anything that strengthens a behavior. There is both positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement adds something desirable to the situation that encourages that subject to repeat the behavior. A negative reinforcement removes something that is unpleasant to the subject from the situation. Both positive and negative reinforcement reward the subject. They strengthen behavior.
This is different from punishment which decreases behavior. Positive punishment gives something to the subject that the subject does not like if they do not do the correct behavior. Negative punishment is taking something away from the subject that they enjoyed.
Reinforcement has been found to a more successful way for getting subjects to repeat a certain behavior because it rewards them for doing the correct thing. Punishment is also successful, but not as much because it can only teach a subject what not to do.
I have used both reinforcement and punishment on my dog, Chloe. Electric fences are positive punishment. I used these on her to make her stop running out of our yard. If she crossed the property line she was given a small shock. After crossing once, she never did it again. A beeping noise also goes off when she gets close to the electric fence. Chloe has associated this noise with the shock (classical conditioning) and will turn around whenever she hears it. I also taught Chloe some tricks with positive reinforcement. Through shaping I was eventually able to teach Chloe how to roll over. Every time she completed the task successfully I would give her a treat (normally a piece of cheese). This turned into a problem though because I might’ve made her do the trick too many times. For a while after teaching her how to roll over, Chloe would start rolling over and over and over every time someone in my family got some cheese from the refrigerator. She wouldn’t stop until they gave her the cheese or picked her up. Once I think she did 6 or 7 spins before I stopped her. Thankfully this only lasted a few days. She stopped this dizzying habit when we stopped responding to her.
When I was a senior in high school I took an introductory course in psychology. Our teacher assigned us a semester long project that forced us to notice a bad habit and change it by any means we felt necessary. I had a bad habit of biting my nails when I would get stressed (which seems to have reemerged in college). To change this habit, I took a week to observe myself by taking note of every time I bit my nails. I then decided that I would try a month of reinforcing myself for no nail biting and a month of negatively reinforcing myself each time I bit my nails. After the experiment was over, I did actually break my bad habit and I discovered that for this particular issue, punishment was the most effective response.
The approach I took to this assignment was very much so a behavioristic one. Behaviorism focuses on external behaviors rather than internal ones and emphasizes the objective, scientific analysis of the external behaviors. A behaviorist would say that mental events are triggered by external stimuli, which lead to behaviors. Revisiting my nail biting habit, we can now break it apart as a behaviorist might. The mental event I was experiencing was stress and nervousness which was caused by an external stimulus be it an exam or an emotional hardship. The stimulus and the mental activity would trigger my behavior of nail biting.
Now that each step of my habit was identified, it had to be changed. I went about this using the idea of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of learning when an individual’s behavior is modified by consequences that can reinforce or inhibit recurrence of a particular behavior. There is a general procedure to follow when using operant conditioning to change a behavior or in my case, break a bad habit. The first step is to state a goal. My goal was to stop biting my nails. The next step is to monitor the behavior. I mentioned earlier that I observed myself for a little over two months. During those months, I kept a tally on each day of my planner when I would bite my nails. The third step in the operant conditioning process is to reinforce the behavior. The first week of my experiment acted as a control week so there was no reinforcement. During the first month, I decided to reinforce myself with a reward. If I got through the whole day without biting my nails, I would give myself a point. If by the end of the month I was successful for twenty-five days, I would allow myself to go to the salon to get my nails done. I did not succeed. Therefore, I needed to try a new method. The second month of the experiment was to see the effects of negative reinforcement. For a month I wore a thick rubber band around my wrist. Every time I caught myself biting my nails, I would have the person next to me pull it so it would snap on my wrist. By the end of the month, my friends caught on and when they saw me bite my nails they would snap it without me needing to tell them. This time the operant conditioning worked and I was actually very successful in breaking my habit.
Though my levels of stress and nervousness did not change because my environment was consistent, through a behavioristic approach and operant conditioning, I was able to break my bad habit.