Reinforcement is a Reciprocal Relation

Reinforcement in most human situations commonly is arranged and administered by another person. Teachers reinforce appropriate behavior of their students and parents praise good acts of their children. Often, but not always, reinforcement is treated as a one-way street in that someone reinforces or punishes the behavior of someone else. I reinforce something you do and your behavior changes. End of story. But it isn’t, of course. Thinking of reinforcement in this way tells only half the story. This is because the behavior of others has an effect on the person who is doing the reinforcing. The defining feature of reinforcement is a change in behavior and as the behavior changes it is impossible not to imagine that that change has an effect on the person who’s handing out the reinforcers. So with reinforcement, it becomes a question of who is doing what to whom!

In most romantic relationships, reciprocal reinforcement abounds. There is an old song from the 1956 Broadway musical Happy Hunting Ground, called “Mutual Admiration Society.” The song was popularized by Teresa Brewer and includes the following lines:

We belong to a mutual admiration society, my baby and me, We belong to a mutual admiration society, I think he's handsome and he's smart he thinks that I'm a work of art, I say that he's the greatest man and likewise he's my biggest fan, I say his kisses are like wine he says they're not as good as mine and that's the way we pass the time of day…

The lyricist might just as well have penned “reciprocal reinforcement society”! It is obvious that what we do to others affects what they do us, which changes our behavior toward them in turn. Reinforcement is never a one-way street.

teacher praiseWhen a teacher praises a child’s completion of an academic task, it becomes more likely that the child will complete similar tasks in the future. Because the raison d’être of the teacher is to help the child learn, it seems reasonable to conclude that the child actually learning (in this example by completing the academic task) will reinforce whatever behavior the teacher engaged in to help the child achieve such completion. By the same token, when children fail to complete tasks or, more broadly, “learn,” then the behavior of the teacher is not likely to maintain. Either the teacher then will try other things or, in extreme cases, simply stop trying.

Managers change the behavior of their charges by providing positive feedback following behavior the manager deems useful and in line with the organization’s goals. They do not provide such feedback following behavior inconsistent with these goals. If the feedback changes behavior in the appropriate direction, then such feedback is likely to be repeated by the manager following other instances of such useful behavior. Note that the providing of positive feedback here is the behavior of the manager that is being reinforced by what the manager’s charges do or do not do.

Finally, consider the opposite of reinforcement, punishment. Punishment reduces whatever behavior it follows. When undesirable, socially unacceptable, or just plain annoying behavior is reduced, such reduction serves as a negative reinforcer for whatever behavior on the part of the person doing the punishing was responsible for the reduction. And the behavior responsible for the reduction was the use of punishment! Thus using punishment not only gets rid of undesirable behavior, but it also increases the likelihood that the next time the undesirable behavior occurs, the person finding the behavior undesirable will turn to punishment to stop such behavior.

(For further discussion of reciprocal reinforcement, see also “Shaping the Shaper” in Behavior Watch.)

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.