Posted on 17 October, 2016

Types of Positive Reinforcement

By Jacob Andreae in Mindset, Health Types of Positive Reinforcement

[Image Source: Roderick Elme]

I recently wrote about a law of learning known as operant conditioning. One of those types of operant conditioning was positive reinforcement. Reinforcement refers to a consequence that increases the likelihood of repeating a behaviour. Humans are more likely to repeat behaviours that are pleasurable and less likely to repeat behaviours that are painful - physically or psychologically. The positive aspect refers to some form of reward.

Psychologists have studies in quite a bit of depth which type of operant conditioning is the most effective for changing a behaviour:

  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Negative Reinforcement
  • Positive Punishment
  • Negative Punishment

For an explanation of these types of operant conditioning, check out this previous blog.

As a teacher, parent and coach, I’ve experimented with each type of operant conditioning quite a bit in order to achieve a desired result. In my experience, and according to the research, the most effective type of operant conditioning for modifying behaviour is positive reinforcement. All types work but positive reinforcement is the most effective.

Positive reinforcement is about rewarding a desired result. In 1898, Edward Thorndike placed a cat in a box with a mechanical latch that it could trip to let itself out. Food was then placed outside the box in full view of the cat. When the cat saw the food, it paced up and down and meowed wanting to get out and get the food. Upon pacing up and down the box one of the times, the cat accidentally tripped the latch and was able to get out. Over time the cat became more adept at tripping the latch and getting the food as soon as it appeared.

Thorndike called this phenomenon the law of effect. This means that the tendency to reproduce a behaviour depends on the behaviour’s effect on the environment and the consequent effect on the animal (or human). More simply, behaviour is controlled by consequences.

Humans have a unique ability to use this knowledge to their advantage. If you want to consciously change your behaviours in order to change the way you live and the quality of your life, you have the capacity to do so. You can do this by establishing a new set of behaviours, ultimately habits, and rewarding yourself every time you perform one of these behaviours, in order to make repeating those behaviours more likely. This is positive reinforcement and it is the most effective way to modify behaviour.

If exercise is a behaviour you’d like to do more of and essentially make a habit, here are 11 examples of positive reinforcement you can use to reward yourself for having done it.

11 Examples of Positive Reinforcement for Exercise

  1. Smile and say thank you
    Every time you finish exercising, go into your bathroom, look in the mirror, smile to yourself and say thank you. Say thank you from the future you to the present you. Your future you will appreciate no ends the time and effort you just put into them.
  2. Take yourself out to breakfast
    Saturday morning exercise is a wonderful thing. You don’t need to get up super early. Find a way to exercise on a Saturday morning, whether it’s with a running group like Parkrun, a group fitness class or a walk with a friend. Do what works for you. After you’ve finished, go out for a long breakfast together.
  3. Take yourself to a movie
    Going to the cinema is something that seems to happen less often today. With movies so accessible on TV and the internet, people often need a good reason to go to the cinema. Set yourself a target of completing one or two weeks of training and go see a movie once you’ve achieved that target.
  4. Enjoy your days off intentionally
    Everyone misses a workout at one time or another. The problem is, most people don’t workout regularly and then feel guilty for not doing it. When you workout regularly, whether that’s twice a week or six times a week, you can cut yourself some slack when you just need a break. Enjoy the day off and get back into it on your following scheduled day.
  5. Take a mini break
    When you live in a city, you often don’t see all the sights and attractions that city has to offer. After a week of sticking with your exercise schedule, reward yourself with a tour you wouldn’t normally do, or going to see an attraction you wouldn’t normally see.
  6. Treat yourself to some new clothing
    This one has double impact. Not only do you feel good for buying a new piece of clothing, you will gradually notice over time how you fit into different clothes better. This in turn further motivates and encourages you to stick with it. I suggest once a month for the biggest impact.
  7. Take a class
    Now that you’re starting to change your behaviours around exercise, you’ll probably want to start changing your behaviours around eating too. Reward yourself with a cooking class. Look up classes at the local high school, college, TAFE or university and book in to learn some new cooking techniques. A popular example is to learn techniques and recipes from your favourite foreign culture.
  8. Donate
    Research shows that spending money on other people correlates with greater feelings of happiness than spending money on yourself. Take a friend out to lunch, donate to a charity or give money to a homeless person. If you’ve got the time, donate that too. Spend some time volunteering at a school, in an op shop or at your local surf lifesaving club.
  9. Get something for yourself you wouldn’t normally
    Treat yourself once a week to something you wouldn’t normally buy for yourself. It could be flowers, it could be a book, maybe it’s a trinket. This is different to the clothing one as it’s something you can display and remind yourself of where you’ve come from and how far you’ve come. It will also serve as a motivator to keep moving forward.
  10. Pay yourself
    Put money in a piggy bank every time you finish a workout. Whatever you can afford. It could be $2, it might be $50. Every time you finish a workout, pay yourself. Use that money on whatever you want. It could go towards one of the other examples above or it might just go into long-term savings. It doesn’t matter. This one’s important though because most of the others are about rewarding yourself over time. This one is about rewarding yourself every single time.
  11. Get out of town
    At the end of your big goal, whether that’s completing a 12-week program or a whole year of exercise, get out of town and go on a holiday. You might need the money from the example above to pay for it but this is the big one. This one is the big reward for having completed the whole process.

Operant conditioning refers to controlling the consequences of a behaviour in order to modify that behaviour. Positive reinforcement is one type of operant conditioning and is the most effective of the four types. Positive reinforcement is about rewarding behaviour that you consider desirable, in order to increase the likelihood of repeating that behaviour.

What types of positive reinforcement do you use to reinforce a desirable behaviour?

About Jacob Andreae

About Jacob Andreae

I write and speak about Fitness, Nutrition and Mindset. 

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Types of Positive ReinforcementA quick start guide to losing weight and staying on track. Learn the strategies I use to eat and move for optimal health. Includes worksheets to enhance your motivation, commitment and discipline, along with a sample eating plan and exercise program.