Psychologists give people their ideas of these things that condition the behaviour of people. These things existed since the dawn of time. Psychologists did not invent them. They only identified them and worked out how to use them more effectively. While punishment is well understood, positive and negative reinforcements are not. Positive reinforcement is often overused and quickly loses its effectiveness over time. Understanding the nature of these tools really help us to use them effectively and maintain their effectiveness.
So what is reinforcement?
If one remembers Pavlov's classical conditioning, it is easy to explain the idea of reinforcement. You go about to create a behaviour (in human or animal) by conditioning. For example, you tap 3 times on the glass of an aquarium then you feed the fish. After a few times, the fish will come if you tap 3 times even without feeding them. But they stop coming if you stop feeding for a while. So to REINFORCE the behaviour, you must keep feeding them as you tap on the glass.
In the above example, positive reinforcement is the FEEDING and negative reinforcement is THE STOP OF FEEDING. In a few words, positive reinforcement is to GIVE/ADD and negative reinforcement is to TAKE AWAY/SUBTRACT. That's what I thought anyway! The psychologists are truly mad people. They make it harder for normal people to understand. They say that negative reinforcement is to take away, but the thing you take away MUST be the BAD things. In the case of feeding the fish, you take away the good thing for the fish. So you are actually PUNISHING the fish. They call this NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT! So what the hell is negative reinforcement?
Negative reinforcement is when the subject is suffering a bad condition for example extremely hot weather. You then take away the heat by turning on the air-conditioner. This teaches the subject that turning on the air-con will make life better. This means both positive and negative reinforcements increase a behaviour. Anything that decreases a behaviour is call punishments (positive/add or negative/subtract)
Simple, isn't it? Yet we make mistakes all the time when you try to apply these ideas to others (our kids) try to get them to behave in certain ways. If adults think you are trying to condition them, they would quickly think you are a manipulator and instantly stop dealing with you. So even if you are trying to do this to your colleagues or partners, you would need to pretend that you don't even know what these things are! You probably also need to pretend that you are not conditioning the kids too. They may work it out.
How positive reinforcement can go wrong?
We are often fooled into believing that positive reinforcement is always good and should always work. It does not! There lots of reason why it does not work or would lose effectiveness very quickly.
- What if you give someone something s/he does not like? (this is called positive PUNISHMENT)
- What if you give someone something that never breaks down? (You get only one chance and you have done it!)
- What if you give someone something that will grow and give that person more and more so that the person would never need you again?
- What if you praise a child for everything that is just a bit better than worthless stuff? The child will crumble when there is a tiny failure.
How negative reinforcement can go wrong?
People may confuse negative reinforcement with punishment! The two things are different but related. It is about taking something away. Sometimes it is a punishment but sometimes it is not. This is why people are completely confused! Positive reinforcement can be a punishment too. When you give something that people don't like (tough love), it is a punishment too. Therefore, a punishment is just the case that people get something they don't like or when they lose something they like. We need to be savvy enough to know when something is a punishment and when it is not. Strictly to the definition given by psychologists, one must remember.
- Positive reinforcement is to give something pleasant.
- Negative reinforcement is to take away something unpleasant.
- Both reinforcements increases a behaviour you want to promote.
The main trouble with playing around with reinforcement is we tend to use positive reinforcement too often. We fill kids up with pleasant things. Then we have no more new things to give. The kids stop doing what we want and spend all their time on games and toys, we realise that we need to take these things away. Immediately, this is called negative punishment and the kids will become violent! As negative punishment only decreases the behaviour we don't like (kids playing games), it does not promote what we like (kids doing study and chores).
How about using negative punishment to force kids to behave in a certain way in order to avoid the punishment? This means making punishment a permanent unpleasant stimulus, and then take it away if the kids behave the way we want them to. This works for most cases but it damages the relationship between kids and parents.
So what works?
It is all about a balance. The best policy is to make sure that positive reinforcement will continue to work and negative punishment is not necessary. This is how to minimise the "violent" reaction and teach a child how to get what s/he wants.
We need to pay attention to the lifespan of a reinforcement (how long it would last). The shorter it lasts, the more effective it will be.
For example: a trip to McDonald for an ice-cream and a burger is a short positive reinforcement. You can give this again and again. But an iPad will last for years so you can only give it once! You immediately lose it as a positive reinforcement tool as soon you give it away.
By giving only very short term positive reinforcement, you can keep it working for a long time as you have the power to give it again. Obviously, you can recreate that power by taking it away. But that will be a negative reinforcement, and that is also a punishment. The violent reaction will be hard to bear for both parents and child!
The message here is "renewable positive reinforcement". I am not sure if this idea has been thought up by psychologists before but I am sure ancient people already knew this. So it is probably not worth it to claim intellectual property for it (:
The idea is simple! You just make sure your child own NOTHING. Every time the child wants to get something, the child will have to ask for it. You can then put up conditions for what the child wants to get. You will always have the tool of reinforcement to control and exact the positive behaviours. Yes, this is cruel and heartless but very effective. And you will also model the child to be cruel, heartless and selfish too. But knowing how the tool works is the start. Knowing how to keep positive reinforcement effective allows you to moderate it and create a happy balance.
The happy balance
Kids must be allowed to own many essential things so they feel secured and "landed". This is when they learn to value things and learn to give. If you don't have anything, how can you give any one anything? Yet, some of the non-essential things they desire the most (every child is different), should be "loaned" to them on conditions of positive behaviours. So one should make a list of things that are generally non-essential for the kids but they love these so much. They know they should not be allowed to have them but they want them anyway.
These could be (and many more as every child will like different things)
- iPad (as lots of free games could be loaded on!)
- Computer games
- Game consoles
- TV (endless hours of vegetating and letting the TV shows do all the thinking for your kids)
- Internet access (endless hours of watching silly YouTube stuff and online games)
Make sure these things are OWNED by parents. Kids can only get "renewable" access with conditions. You can buy all the fun things but make sure the kids know that these things are NOT theirs. However, they can have plenty of access depending on their behaviours. And the WRONG behaviour is to annoy parents so much in order to be rewarded with access to these items just to leave parents in peace. It is a common bad behaviour of parents to shoo the kids away by giving them access to these items. After a while, it is impossible to take these things away.
Breaking the habit
How to break the habit (giving negative reinforcement) without the violence?
You will need a scapegoat for this. For example, to take the TV off the kids, wait for a day with real bad weather. Unplug the antennae then blame it on the storm and the repairman not coming. After a few weeks, the loss of access takes the kids off TV. Similarly, do same thing with the Internet. And when Internet is put back, put in child control on the router in terms of hours (or ask a technician to help setting child control up) and tell the kid that you don't know what to do to change it.
Pushing the "reset" button on behaviour is very difficult! Negative punishment will incite "violence". So it is best to NOT to give a "bad" positive reinforcement at the first place.
Also give a renewable positive reinforcement at every opportunity when you see your child exhibit a desirable behaviour. This will encourage the desirable behaviours. Once a kid grows a lot of desirable behaviours so that these outnumber the poor behaviours, you get a happy balance.
Why negative reinforcement is not popular as positive reinforcement?
For negative reinforcement to become popular, the subject must have a such a bad life that almost everything is "renewable" unpleasantness. This gives opportunities to take away unpleasant things to create negative reinforcement. This why a lot of kids in poor families/societies who had so little in their childhood eventually became successful. They had very little in life and have to do a lot of chores on daily basis. Every time they studied hard the parents might reward them by letting them have a respite from chores or other unpleasant things. They learned to study very hard just to (one day) get out of their unpleasant conditions.