The Surprisingly Obvious Difference Between Bribery and Reinforcement

There are a lot of myths out there about what constitutes verifiable strategies for behavior change. Today, I want to clarify the difference between reinforcement, which is a behavioral practice, and bribery, which is a sure road to problem behavior. Admittedly, it's a subtle difference, but in terms of small beings the contrast is a big deal.

Bribery, according to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, is the act of getting someone to do something by giving or promising something valuable (such as money). The significant language in this definition is “to try to get someone to do something.” When you use bribery with your small being, you're essentially offering s/he a valuable item because s/he refuses to do what you wanted s/he to do. You do this because you're desperate; you're begging your small being to comply.

An example might look like: You ask your small being to brush her teeth when it's almost bed time. She refuses. You offer five more minutes of TV if she will do it. She whines and falls to the floor, crying about how much she hates brushing her teeth. You offer 10 more minutes of TV. She wipes her eyes, says "okay" in a small mouse voice and walks sulkily to the bathroom to brush her teeth.

On the other hand, reinforcement, Merriam-Webster tells us, (warning: this is going to get complicated) is the action of causing a subject (as in your small being) to increase the frequency of a desired response that in classical conditioning involves the repeated presentation of an unconditioned stimulus paired with a conditioned stimulus and that in operand conditioning involves the use of a reward following a correct response or a punishment following an incorrect response.

Wow, that was tough! My head's spinning! No wonder no one understands what reinforcement is!

Simply, when you use reinforcement you're increasing the likelihood that the positive behavior will occur. Reinforcement is a fact. If you do what I am asking, you get this great thing. With the same situation above, you ask your small being to come brush her teeth and let her know that she'll get 10 extra minutes of TV if she does it "quick, like a bunny." She hops up, goes into the bathroom and before you have to ask again her teeth are brushed.

The trick with reinforcement is knowing ahead of time what it is that your small being will want. We both know that this changes frequently, so stay on your toes.

With reinforcement, if your small being didn't hop up to brush her teeth, then there's no extra TV. Period. Teeth still need to be brushed, so stick with that direction, but there is no reward.

Do you see the difference? With bribery, you're repeating the offer and your terms based on your small being's reaction. And when you operate in the heat of the moment, the small being gets the desired item even when problem behavior occurred. With reinforcement, you make a good offer and let your small being decide what he or she will do. (Tweet) Problem behavior is often the result and you have no leverage.

It will take some practice to switch from bribery to reinforcement, but the effort you take will have great rewards! I know you can do it, so let's get started in the insight section below!

Insight into Action:

What do you tend to use, reinforcement or bribery? How has either or both gone for you? Remember, the stories and comments you share will help other people going through the same issues.

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