Positive reinforcement works by presenting a motivating or reinforcing stimulus to a person (or dog) after a desired behavior is shown, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future. It is a positive incentive to motivate a behavior we want. It is commonly used with children and also in dog training (I am not comparing child raising to dog training . . .I promise.) When you tell a dog to sit and give him a treat when he does, that is positive reinforcement of the wanted behavior–him sitting.
This type of motivation can be used in many different ways. I work part-time in childcare, and I use positive reinforcement all the time, occasionally on purpose. When I have a couple of children I have had to constantly yell at to no avail, I am forced to change my tactics in order to save my sanity. I soon found that acknowledging good behavior in other children while ignoring bad behavior usually results in the child that is displaying the bad behavior to mimic the acknowledged good behavior in other children. For example, I will say, "Look at how good Jason is being. Thank you for standing in line quietly like I asked." All of a sudden Jenny and Susan will be in line with their fingers on their lips usually looking at me expectantly for their praise. It is actually a fun little experiment.
I have seen positive reinforcement work in marketing as well. Several years ago I went wine tasting in the Finger Lakes region of New York state. The area is known for its wineries, so a girlfriend and I escaped law school for a long weekend to enjoy the finer things in life. It cost two to three dollars to do a wine tasting at each winery. A price we gladly paid. Some of the wineries would credit the wine tasting fee toward a bottle of wine if you chose to make a purchase. What I discovered was that I was much more likely to spend an extra eight to ten dollars to purchase a bottle of wine if given the incentive of getting the tasting for “free.” Needless to say, I ended up with a well-stocked wine cabinet. Don’t judge me; law school is stressful.
One of my favorite examples of positive reinforcement happened in Richmond, Canada. The Richmond Police Department followed a well-established approach to cracking down on crime: pass new and harsher laws, set stronger sentencing, or initiate zero tolerance sentencing. That is until Ward Clapman became the new superintendent. He questioned the reactive and negative policing efforts. Out of his questioning came the idea for Positive Tickets. This program focused on catching youth doing something good (i.e. picking up litter and throwing it in a trash can, wearing a helmet while riding a bike, getting to school on time) and giving them a ticket for the positive behavior. Instead of carrying a fine, the ticket could be redeemed for a small reward—like free entry to the movies or to an event at a local youth center. The program worked so well that over time it reduced recidivism from sixty percent to eight percent.
I was reading about this incentive program in the book Essentialism by Greg McKeown. The program itself is a pretty good example of positive reinforcement, but the story gets better. During this program, a police officer stopped a teenager who had saved a girl from being hit by a car and gave him a Positive Ticket. He told the boy, “You did a great thing today. You can make a difference.” The boy hung the Positive Ticket on his wall. After a couple of weeks, his foster mother asked whether he was going to use it. His response caused my eyes to mist. He told his foster mother that “an adult had told him he could be somebody, and that was worth more than free pizza or bowling.”[i] That is the power of positive reinforcement.
“You’ve been criticizing yourself for years and it hasn’t worked. Try approving of yourself and see what happens.” —Louise Hay
But what if you applied these tactics to your own life and your own behaviors. What if, instead of always beating ourselves up for bad performance in work, school, career, health, or relationships, we rewarded ourselves for behaviors we wanted to repeat? What if, instead of complaining about the current state of our lives, we started building a life we truly wanted to live and rewarded ourselves for those positive steps? I think we could not only change our way of thinking, but we could actually change our lives.
But how do you change behaviors in yourself?
First, start acknowledging your positive behaviors. When you acknowledge a good behavior in yourself, give yourself a smile and a pat on the back, allow yourself to be proud, wallow in that good feeling. And when you notice you are behaving in a way you dislike, refrain from chastising yourself. Simply change your behavior, and then reward yourself for the change. It is like the naughty child that changes his behavior when he sees that good behavior is praised.
“If you don’t make the time to work on creating the life you want, you’re eventually going to be forced to spend a LOT of time dealing with a life you don’t want.”
On the flip side, stop chasing rabbit holes. Stop feeding the negative wolves. By my third year of law school, I was suspicious that practicing law was not for me. But I felt I was too far-gone. I was proud when I graduated, as I should have been. I should mention that law school graduation is truly a celebration. We clogged up a NYC street outside of Carnegie Hall with post-graduation celebrations. When I returned to Alabama, I kept telling myself I would eventually travel. I would find a job that allowed me to be location independent, yet I still pursued a career and a path I hated. I created negative habits. I, in some ways, rewarded negative behaviors by continuing to do them. I took the bar exam and applied for jobs I had no desire to get. It took a lot of courage to walk away from that path.
If you are working too many hours and want to spend more time with your kids, stop rewarding your negative behaviors. Eat in more and savor a cheaper meal spent at home with your family instead of a more expensive meal that requires an extra hour of work to afford. Most kids would rather play with sticks in the mud with their parents than alone in a playroom full of toys. Stop saying yes to over-commitments. Say no and reward yourself with some quiet time indulging in something you love but rarely have time to do.
“Be proud that you are trying even if you aren’t there yet.”
—Al Fox Carraway
You can apply these tactics on a larger scale as well.
Say you want to completely change job paths or start a new endeavor or travel the world. Make this big objective your overarching goal. Achieving this goal in and of itself is a reward. These big goals are easy to get excited, motivated, and even fired up about. Now you need discipline. Break down this overarching goal into smaller, achievable tasks. If you want to write a book, shift your focus to the smaller, achievable goal of writing 500 words of chapter two over the weekend. Reward these smaller achievements.
Especially with bigger goals, the reward needs to be worth the effort. It should be meaningful to you. Do not reward yourself with a hike if all you have been thinking about all week is a nice, refreshing dip in the lake.
Lastly, the reward should fit the effort. A smile and a pat on the back might be just reward for refraining from making a snarky comment and giving constructive criticism instead. But a pat on the back might not be enough to positively reinforce doing a tough five-mile run in preparation for a marathon. A warm soak in a bath or even a nice massage might be a better reward. The reward should be equal to or slightly greater than the effort.
Now, live positively.
This week start becoming the person you want to be. Positivity builds, so start out small. Reward your achievements, no matter how slight. And forgive your shortcomings. Positive reinforcement can be a powerful tool in your life and the life of others. So don’t forget to acknowledge others’ good behavior and forgive the bad. Watch your life transform before your eyes.
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” —George Eliot