018 – Chapter 3, Part 4


Provide Advantages for Responsible Behavior (continued)

Fourth, reinforcing the behavior increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again, but it does not guarantee it. Making lasting changes in a behavior requires a sustained period of reinforcement to assure the behavior will become internalized and therefore will continue to occur.

Thus, it is critically important to understand the “likelihood” notion. The simple scale shown here shows the impact of additional reinforcement on the likelihood or probability that a behavior will occur again.

2011-04-12 - 01 - Prin of Pos Reinf - Prob Scale 2

The line on the left shows that the probability or likelihood of a behavior increases whenever it is reinforced. On the right, the scale ranges from certain not to occur (0 percent probability), to certain to occur (100 percent).

Because Johnny sometimes takes the trash out and sometimes doesn’t, we know he is able to do the task but hasn’t yet taken responsibility for it. Also, because he does it sometimes but not all the time, we know that the probability he will do it is above zero but below 100 percent. Since we have no way to determine exactly where on the probability scale his behavior lies, I have placed a line at x1 percent probability just to indicate a starting point.

The Principle of Positive Reinforcement tells us that if Johnny takes the trash out again sometime and is reinforced, the probability that he will do it again will go up by some amount. This is indicated on the scale by x2, after being rewarded. Note that even though there is no way to know exactly how much change occurred, it is clear that some did occur.

Fifth, any success is important but does not guarantee lasting changes. Parents sometimes report trying a reward program of some sort – chip system, point system, or whatever – and finding that the program “didn’t work.” When describing those experiences, parents typically say that:

They tried the approach for a time,
The child seemed to do better,
They began to take the changes for granted,
They less and less often remembered to provide promised rewards, and
The behavior went back to the way it was or even got worse.

Our simple probability chart anticipates just such a development, indicating that if you stop this approach too soon, your child’s behavior will revert to whatever you saw before you started. Increasing the probability that your child will do a certain thing as directed is important, but:

You must continue the reinforcement until your child is operating on the basis of internalized reinforcement.

Thus, reinforcing Johnny’s success in getting the trash out does not mean he will ever do it again, but it does mean he is more likely to.

It is critical – and exciting – to realize is that if his parents can arrange for Johnny to take the trash out enough times and reinforce him enough times, they can count on his behavior to become internally reinforced, our goal.

It is useful to remind ourselves here that since the principle is neutral with respect to the type of behavior, all these points apply equally forcefully to behaviors you might not like.

Finally, remember that just as we have no way to determine how likely a child is to do a certain task, we also lack any gauge as to how many more times a child must be reinforced to internalize the reinforcement. This is inconvenient, but in practice it turns out not to be a big deal.


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