Now that we have talked about identifying reinforcers, how are they effectively used?

This is where things get tricky. You reward good behavior, right? Well, not exactly. There’s more to it.

The first thing that is very important is that reinforcement MUST be contingent upon responding. You gotta do the thing to get the thing. If you are going to get a pedi, latte, or glass of wine anyway, it doesn’t count (sorry!). When you use non-contingent reinforcement (NCR), you are essentially decreasing the worth of the reinforcer.
Here is a video that explains the process. Ignore the jargon like abolishing operation and motivating operation.

So basically, not only are you not going to increase your exercise, you’re probably going to bag it altogether. Make sure your reinforcer is contingent upon exercise.

The next issue is delay. The longer the time period between the behavior and the reinforcer, the less effective that reinforcer is. We’re more likely to go for the smaller reinforcer delivered sooner than the big one delivered later. This is why that donut today is way more appealing than the body changes we have to wait for. Boo biology. This is also why the “wait until your father gets home” strategy wasn’t nearly as effective as it seems. Here is our same friend explaining delay discounting:

So, reinforce when you do the thing. Reinforce as soon as you can. Smaller, sooner reinforcers lead to larger later payoffs. It makes way sounder behavioral sense to give yourself a gold star, a pat on the back, or a glass of wine after working out than it does to have some big thing you can only access once in a while. If you want to use a massage, for example, as a reinforcer for getting to the gym, make sure you also have smaller, backup reinforcers as well.

In the next blog, we’ll talk about schedules of reinforcement…or, why there is no such thing as intrinsic motivation. Have ideas on how you use reinforcement? Share them in the comments!

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