Monday, February 11, 2013

Reinforcement & Punishment for (not of) Parents

Of the many considerations that behavior analysts keep in mind, one important consideration is a schedule of reinforcement and punishment. While, generally, these concepts can seem overwhelming, we are going to break them down into manageable parts. A few notes to begin before we get into all of this is that we reinforce behavior, NOT people. And we do not know if something is reinforcing or punishing until we see an increase or decrease in the behavior.
Antecedent – what happens before the behavior
Behavior – anything observable that an individual does
Consequence – what follows the behavior
Reinforcement – process of increasing the rate of response (usually frequency and/or intensity)
Punishment – process of decreasing the rate of response (usually frequency and/or intensity)
Positive – The introduction of a stimulus
Negative – The removal of a stimulus
Here is a nice little visual to help keep the basic principles straight.  You can also download the visual by itself here.
Reinforcement Increase in the probability of a behavior occurring again under similar conditions
Punishment Decrease in the probability of a behavior occurring again under similar conditions
Positive                                    + Introduction of a stimulus
Negative                                   – Removal of a stimulus
Let’s take a look at an example of positive reinforcement. When James asks for a toy, you give him a toy. If that toy has a reinforcing property, he will ask for the toy again when he wants it. If that toy does not have a reinforcing quality, he will not ask for it again. To break it down, James wanting a toy is the antecedent.  James requesting a toy is his behavior (he moves his mouth, produces sounds that are a request for something), you giving him a toy is the consequence. Now, we cannot know for sure if we have reinforced his behavior, because we need to wait and see, if I take the toy, will he ask for it again. If so, we can safely say that we have positively (introducing the toy) reinforced (increased the probability of him requesting the toy again) his behavior.
Let’s take a look at another example. James is sitting at his desk and he throws his materials on the ground, he then is not required to complete the task. When you present the materials again, he again pushes them off the desk and is again not required to complete the task. Any thoughts on this? If you’re thinking negative reinforcement, you’ve got it! The antecedent is the presentation of a demand (to complete his work). The behavior is him pushing the materials off the desk, and the consequence is getting out of the task. When he does it again, we know that the consequence of getting out of the task is negatively (removal of the materials) reinforcing (increase in James pushing materials). Therefore, in the future, when James does not want to complete a task, he may throw the materials – he has learned that engaging in this behavior in the past has resulted in him not being required to finish.
Now, for some punishment! To keep it basic, you and I are having a conversation, and I want it to end, and I rudely turn away from you, and you stop talking. My behavior might punish (cause a decrease) in you wanting to speak to me again. So, our antecedent is a conversation I am not too thrilled with, my behavior is turning away, and the consequence is I get out of the conversation. By my behavior of turning away rudely, I have decreased the probability of you engaging in conversation with me again. Therefore, I have positively punished our conversing.
Negative punishment is a little easier to follow. If I remove James’ toys because he is throwing them, I am hoping that he will not throw them again in the future. Therefore, while the antecedent for throwing may be unclear, I am still taking his behavior of throwing and giving it a consequence, removal of the toys. If, in the future, he does not throw his toys again under similar conditions, I have negatively (removed) punished (decreased throwing) his throwing behavior.
In summary, understanding how behavior is reinforced or punished is going to tell us a great deal about how they may behave in the future under similar conditions. Behavior analysts look at what occurs before a behavior (the antecedent), but more emphasis is placed on what happens after a behavior (the consequence) as science has proven that schedules of reinforcement and punishment has a predictive value on future behavior.
We know that this can all be a little confusing, so take some time to think through some other examples as they come up.

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