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Why Reinforcement Isn’t Bribery

Why Reinforcement Isn’t Bribery

Reinforcement is something quite different from bribery, despite the occasional equating of the two in some quarters. Because reinforcement is so important in behavior analysis both theoretically and as part of many interventions, it behooves us to have reasonable responses when issues of its equivalence to bribery do arise.

Reinforcement occurs when a response increases or is maintained as a result of the presentation of some activity or object. Such presentation usually is dependent on and occurs more or less immediately after the response. Consult a dictionary and you will find bribery defined as “the act of giving or accepting a bribe,” and a bribe defined as (noun form) “any valuable consideration given or promised with a view to corrupting the behavior of a person….” or, in verb form, “to influence or corrupt by a bribe.” 

briberyBribery and reinforcement can be confused because their implementation form may appear to be similar. Saying to little Johnny “if you clean your room, we will go and get an ice cream cone” sounds a lot like saying to a local government official who has been immovable in issuing a building permit, “I will give you a thousand dollars when you get me my builder’s permit with no strings attached.” Even though these two descriptions are reminiscent of the expression “if it looks like an elephant, then it must be an elephant,” when we step back we find that bribery really is not one and the same as the whole of the reinforcement elephant.

bribeLet’s begin with the biggest difference between bribery and reinforcement. Bribery is, by definition, illegal and/or unethical. Offering or taking a bribe has legal consequences – fines, jail, or both. Reinforcement is neither of those things. Providing a reinforcer as part of a therapeutic intervention, for example, involves attempts to establish prosocial behavior. Reinforcement can have negative effects on desired outcomes, increasing a pattern of unwanted behavior, but that is not bribery. Of course, using reinforcement in therapeutic interventions is subject to legal and ethical guidelines.   

Another difference has to do with intention. Sometimes, as the previous definition notes, the intent, and often the effect, of a bribe is to corrupt. If the intent of reinforcement is to corrupt in the legal sense, then and only then is reinforcement bribery. But, using reinforcement to shape prosocial behavior cannot be construed as bribery. In this latter case, the intent is not to corrupt. Intent, it must be noted, can be overt (“I will give you $1000.00 for getting me that permit) or implied (“I can foresee good things happening for you should a permit appear in my office next week”), but intent has to be established if an accusation of bribery is to legally or ethically stand.

briberyBut what constitutes intent? Intent most often is defined as a cognitive or mental state that guides behavior to some goal. It is defined differently in behavior analysis, where intent constitutes antecedent circumstances or context that set the occasion for behavior. The intent of reinforcement-based treatments, for example, is to develop advantage for the individual and, in so doing, also for society. The intent of a briber is to get something that otherwise is not available to the briber through means that society has deemed unacceptable (and the intent of the “bribee” is to accept something for an action society has deemed unacceptable). Examining the context in which the dependency between doing something and receiving something occurs, reveals whether an act of bribery has occurred. 

There is another, technical, difference between the two. In bribery, the bribe can occur either before or after the behavior, but for reinforcement to be defined, the behavior must occur before the consequence (that’s why we call it a “consequence”). Because bribery can occur with or without the required temporal order of reinforcement, bribery cannot be equated with reinforcement on this basis. Bribery can’t sometimes be reinforcement and sometimes not. Reinforcement can occur for illegal or unethical behavior, but it is also true that reinforcement can occur without any relation to the definition of bribery.

reinforcing your childA final observation: A promise to give something if some behavior occurs is not bribery either, unless the behavior is illegal or unethical. A promise is simply a discriminative stimulus that lays out the conditions under which the response will be reinforced—an if-then relation, not a bribe. Clean your room and a reinforcer will follow. Don’t clean your room and the reinforcer will not follow.

Reinforcement in therapeutic settings does not meet the definition of bribery, for all of the reasons outlined above. Equating the two is more than factually erroneous. It does a great disservice to the many positive and constructive changes in people’s lives that are made possible by the judicious use of reinforcement by skilled practitioners of applied behavior analysis.

Posted by Andy Lattal

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.