The Pleasure of Reinforcement

I don’t know about you, but I would describe most of the things that positively reinforce my behavior as “pleasurable.” But, hold on, you say. One of the first things one learns when being taught about reinforcement is that reinforcers are categorized by their effects on behavior and not by their affect, the feelings they may arouse. Categorizing things based on how they make us feel is falling into the same trap as the likes of Noam Chomsky, that nemesis of B. F. Skinner who once said that reinforcers are "perfectly useless . . . in the discussion of real-life behavior, unless we can somehow characterize the stimuli which are reinforcing. . .” (Chomsky, 1959, p. 36). Believe me, he was not talking about categorizing them in terms of their effects, but rather in terms of their formal structure (just the way he also characterized language).

So after all that I have been through, and learned, to become a behavior analyst why would I break the code and say that reinforcers are pleasurable? Well, simply because they are: I have learned through a long history of verbal reinforcement to describe certain things in certain ways. Trees are green (in the summer, at least) and the sky is blue. And positive reinforcers are pleasurable.  

Here’s the caveat. I am not saying that reinforcers work because they are pleasurable. I’m just using a verbal label that I have learned to use on appropriate occasions in a particular way to categorize and describe them. This is world away from how Chomsky and others of a more formal, structural ilk would categorize reinforcers based on their form or appearance rather than their function. 

It well can be that other things that I describe as pleasurable may not function as reinforcers, but many of the things that make my behavior more likely when dependent on it I describe as “pleasurable.” I imagine that most of us do this. And we do so because that is how we all learn to talk. Some of Skinner’s most brilliant insights have to do with the way we learn to identify and describe our private events, our feelings. In just this same way we learn to describe the pleasure of positive reinforcers.   

Things and activities that reinforce do not do so because they are satisfying or pleasurable and things and activities that punish do not do so because they are annoying or aversive. Things make our behavior more likely (i.e., reinforce) and we often learn to label them as pleasurable and other things make our behavior less likely (i.e., punish) and we often learn to label them as annoying, unpleasant, or aversive. Labeling is like any other behavior – it can be reinforced and punished, and thus we come to describe it and the events that follow it as pleasant or unpleasant! 

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.