Behavior that is rewarded, is reinforced.

Sunday, February 19, 2006
Dr Helen makes an interesting observation:
You would think that governments as well as people in general would understand that appeasing and rewarding negative behavior doesn't work. It's basic psychology 101--but one that not even most psychology professors understand or put to use. And apparently, this concept is foreign to many of the politically correct persuasion outside the classroom as well--for them, their feeling of moral "superiority" trumps human nature and causes liberals to turn a blind eye to justice and acts of violence.

In Bruce Bawer's new book, While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within, the side effects of the appeasement of Muslims by the Danish government are clear--as their government pumps more and more welfare money into the pockets of disgruntled Muslims, the rate of violence against "infidels" there increases.

It's an interesting problem, not just with Islam in Europe, but more generally. People tend to do what for which they're rewarded; in fact, I think you can look at it the other way, and in general figure that if there is some persistent behavior that you don't like, it's because there's some reward to it that you haven't recognized.

The problem with ever so much of what governments do, is that they tend to reinforce what they presumably want to reduce.


chuck said...

Don't forget the simple power of punishment. I have learned at least as much from painful mistakes as I ever did through positive reinforcement. The trick with punishment, I think, is to make it severe enough to alter behaviour, but not so severe as to raise general resistance.

Rick Ballard said...

You mean Skinner might have been on to something? Next you'll be telling us that Maslowe's hierarchy explains about ninety-five per cent of human behavior. What am I going to do with all the piles of subtlety and nuance that I have laying around here?

terrye said...


This time you beat me to it.

What dr.helen said is true. I have to work with a lot of folks on medicaid and there is a world of difference between the attitudes of people forced into the system by misfortune and those who are always a part of one program or another. In fact a lot of the folks who are forced to ask for help because of illness or injury are very ashamed of the need for assistance. Those folks are not the problem, it is the ones who threaten to burn the place down if they don't get what they want that you need to worry about.

I think we should remember this when dealing with Hamas as well as our reaction to the lunatic cartoon mobs. If Clinton and the Europeans had put the screws to that old terrorist Arafat in the 90's and forced him to clean up his act... instead of treating him like a rock star Hamas might not be running the territories today.

But the Pals have learned that handouts and violence go hand in hand so there is no reason to clean up their act.

Someone needs to employ some tough love where these folks are concerned. I think that the cartoon rioters have made a mistake. They might get some short term gain from governments wanting to maintain order, but the long term effect will be that more and more people will think of them as barbarians.

Morgan said...

"...if there is some persistent behavior that you don't like, it's because there's some reward to it that you haven't recognized."

Very Behaviorist of you, and certainly true. Behavior requires effort, and if there is no reinforcement for it, we won't do it.


Punishment works very well to stop a particular beahavior; as long as the punishee knows what behavior is being punished and the threat of punishment remains, that behavior will remain suppressed.

What you've described ("...learned...from painful mistakes...") sounds like it could be punishment or avoidance (of an aversive stimulus) to me - you've learned to engage in some behaviors that allow you to avoid the aversive stimulus, as opposed to learning merely to refrain from the punished behavior.

The difference between avoidance and straight punishment is this - if I crack my shin on the coffee table every time I get up, so I stop getting up, that's punishment. If I swing my legs to the side first, or move the table, or sit somewhere else, that's avoidance. It's like punishment's grown-up brother.

So I would say that the trick with punishment isn't so much guaging its severity, it's replacing the punished behavior with behaviors designed to avoid the punishment. If you are the punisher, you may want to shape these behaviors.

"Resistance", I think, is more likely to indicate that the behavior is still being reinforced - though I suppose that reinforcement might come from a sense of standing up against unduly harsh punishment.

terrye said...

We do meed to keep in mind however that there is a difference between legitimate need and grievance and just plain bad behavior.

It is true that there are a lot of folks in the ME acting like bad [and dangerous] children right now there really are times when people need and deserve help. The point is to draw the line between meeting a need and reinforcing one.

chuck said...

Morgan,'s replacing the punished behavior with behaviors designed to avoid the punishment.

Yeah, that's what the textbooks say, but I think that they are wrong (as usual).

I once kept two coyote pups for a young lady who was in trouble because said pups would get out and kill the neighbor's chickens. The cops blowing the antenna off their car with a shotgun blast on a tipsy weekend afternoon while attempting to shoot the pups is another story...

Anyway, these pups would get out, clever devils that they were, and I had to figure out ways to trap them and get them back into the old henhouse we kept them in. What struck me was that the same trick never worked twice. The coyote learning curve was something like this: fool me once, fool me never again in my lifetime, sucka.

If one posits that getting trapped was punishment, then it stopped that particular behaviour cold: absolutely, definitively, and forever. Was the old behaviour replaced by some positive new behaviour? You bet, the positive new behaviour was never making *that* mistake again.

I think the textbook treatment of the effects and use of punishment is marred by PC. That is what happens when science becomes progressive politics. Punishment is an everyday part of life, just as important in learning and shaping personality as positive reinforcement.

Seneca the Younger said...

Chuck, the problem is that the textbook treatment of behaviorism is based on experiment. Consider your coyote pups: did they stop trying to escape? No. They just got more creative about how they attempted to escape, and probably cagier about being trapped.

In the welfare context, rewarding people for, say, having more children because funding is a function of number of children appears to increase the number of children. Beyond all the other issues (how do you punish someone for having more children within the bounds of what we consider acceptable, ie, we can't force abortions and we see refusing the increase as punishing the kids as well) the basic result of trying to strictly control how the money is going out appears to be that people get better at "gaming" the system.

That's a sentence worthy of Jeff Goldstein.

Even more difficult is the issue ofa system with mixed incentives: what happens if you are both rewarding and punishing certain behavior?

David Thomson said...

“ is the ones who threaten to burn the place down if they don't get what they want that you need to worry about.”

“...appears to be that people get better at "gaming" the system.”

This is what a lot people learned the hard way concerning many of the Katrina Hurricane refugees. The hard core welfare recipients acted like spoiled children. They felt entitled to the best of everything.

gumshoe1 said...

"What am I going to do with all the piles of subtlety and nuance that I have laying around here?"

you could start an organic farm.

i hear the demand for organic products is fairly large.