Reinforcement is the most important and widely applied principle of behaviour analysis and it shapes how we all behave on a daily basis.
Consider the following list of things that most of us do in everyday life:
All of these behaviours occur because of reinforcement.
But what exactly is reinforcement?
Reinforcement involves consequences that strengthen behaviour. To strengthen a behaviour means to increase the likelihood that it will occur again in the future. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from the list above to help explain it further.
You wake up with a headache so you get up and take an aspirin. Shortly afterwards your headache is gone. In the future, when you get a headache you take an aspirin straight away.
Your phone beeps and you see it’s a message from a friend. You tap to open the message and it’s a funny video that makes you laugh. In the future when the same friend contacts you, you tap to open their message.
Both these examples demonstrate reinforcement as they resulted in an increase of the behaviours reoccurring.
These examples also show us two different types of reinforcement: positive and negative.
When it comes to behaviour, positive and negative do not mean good and bad. They simply mean to add and take away. The examples of the umbrella, aspirin and tooth brushing are all examples of negative reinforcement as they remove or stop something you don’t like from happening. The examples of the phone, coffee and going to work are all examples of positive reinforcers as they add or present something that you like into your environment.
Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the likelihood of you giving the same response in the future. Through a combination of learning and contact with reinforcement, we have all learned to do things that allow us to contact the things we like and also, to avoid things we dislike.
Reinforcement shapes how we all behave and for this reason, it is at the core of all ABA programmes. It is used in all behaviour change programmes, including the teaching of new skills.
The following guidelines explain how to apply reinforcement effectively when working to teach new behaviours.
Reinforcement is an important principle that brings about effective change in behaviour. We utilise it in all our ABA programmes but it is also something that happens naturally, all the time in your everyday life. Stop and think how it is happening in your life today, and remember it is only truly reinforcement if it increases the likelihood that the behaviour will reoccur.
Catherine Browne, ABA Consultant, MA BCBA, Beam ABA Services
0203 886 0640
Cooper J.O, Heron T.E, Heward W.L. Applied Behavior Analysis (2nd ed.) Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson; 2007