How Do We Learn? -Using Reinforcement

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I often find myself making the statement “we are always teaching others how to treat us”. But what does this mean, and how does it work? Parents, employers, and even government agencies use this knowledge frequently in order to effectively get the response that they want from their subordinates. The secret is in how we think, what we pay attention to, and what we let pass by unattended.

First, the basics:

What is the difference between a positive and a negative reinforcer, and how are these methods used in order to learn?

Positive reinforcement is a fancy term describing a situation when the desired behavior is rewarded in order to encourage an individual to repeat or continue that specific behavior. An example might be when you give a child a treat for being polite, a teen gets an award for having perfect attendance, or an adult is verbally praised by their partner for doing the dishes.

A situation with a negative reinforcer would be removing an undesired stimulus when an encouraging behavior is achieved, like if a child were to get good grades and have their curfew extended. Another way to look at a negative reinforcer is by removing something unpleasant, like in this case the curfew, and can be thought of in as simple a situation as removing a splinter from a finger. Or perhaps you are being nagged to do something, so when you complete the task to avoid the nagging and then you are more likely to replicate this behavior in the future.

All of these examples are considered reinforcers because the desired behavior is encouraged to continue. Of course, there are instances when an undesired behavior is allowed to persist and is still considered positive reinforcement, however that is the subject for another post, as is the use of punishment in teaching others how to treat us.

Reinforcement in Real Life

Both of these methods can easily be applied to our daily lives. Each day that we go to work, we are going for what? The enjoyment of sitting at a desk for 8 or more hours? The gratification of being able to complete sometimes an unfathomable number of tasks? Not usually. We go for a paycheck, a form of a positive reinforcer. This type of behavior has been instilled in us as we have acquired intelligence over the years, beginning when we were children.

Because this type of learning is powerful, we have likely picked up some unfortunate beliefs or habits along the way. Even now, in every interaction, depending on what we pay attention to, and what steals our focus, how we react, and what sort of reinforcers we give out, we are teaching others how we would like to be treated, and what sort of behavior we expect.

Working with one of our therapists, you can explore the ways that this type of learning has played out in your life, and they can help you to establish healthy boundaries moving forward.

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