Be Careful What You Read, Even if it’s from the NYT

Can it be that only some people like positive reinforcement? The older I get, the more half-truths and unsupported declarations bug me.  Nowhere is this more evident to me than the way writers, bloggers, etc.  write about human behavior.  For instance in a New York Times article titled, “You’ve Been Doing a Fantastic Job,  Just One Thing…”  the author talks about whether “positive comments are better – and more useful – than negative ones.  And if you do have to point out something wrong, start with a compliment, move on to the problem, and end on a high note.”

Two things: the first is that the bit about “start with a compliment, move on to the problem and end on a high note” is the worst thing that you can do for anybody since one thing that is learned is that a compliment is followed by a punisher.  I have written extensively on the “yes, but…” as it is not only ineffective but also destructive to the relationship between the teacher/student or manager/employee, and often results in poor performance.

The second problem I have with the article is the confusion around feedback and positive reinforcement.  They are not the same.  This mistake is a common one and I can excuse the writer for making it.  However, it is easier to evaluate the studies in the article when this discrimination is understood.  I have defined performance feedback as information on performance that will allow the performer to change that performance. 

Positive feedback is commonly used to include both positive reinforcement and performance feedback.  Performance feedback is neutral. The new student doesn’t know if a low performance is positive or negative. It is the supervisor or teacher who puts a value on it.

The article states that beginners like positive feedback (think positive reinforcement) whereas those who are more advanced prefer “negative feedback.”  Does the writer mean negative reinforcement or negative feedback?  Everybody likes positive reinforcement, whereas almost no one likes negative reinforcement.  I would say with 100 percent certainty that all performers respond better to positive reinforcement.  I would also say that if all seasoned performers ever hear is that they did wrong, they will respond negatively to any feedback. 

What is critical here is that the more positive reinforcement beginners get the faster they improve which leads to more positive reinforcement.  Pointing out errors or mistakes for beginners would be a very frequent event indeed.   Whereas with more experienced performers the ability to correct the fewer and fewer errors is what will get them more positive reinforcement. 

And another thing, the article quotes Tim Hartford, author of “Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure.” Any teacher who starts students, old or young with tasks where students are expected to fail is a poor teacher with poor educational design.   Such a teacher needs to learn how to shape behavior where success is defined in such a way that the student leaves every lesson excited about coming back for the next one.  Only positive reinforcement (success) creates that motivation.

I could go on but I wish every writer who writes about “motivation” and all of its aspects had a good understanding of the science of behavior, behavior analysis, before they begin to send out information that is half-cooked.   

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.