This post is paired with “Only if the Behavior Decreases!“
Q: If I give my dog a piece of kibble whenever she sits, is that positive reinforcement?
A: Only if sitting increases.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it, but the second part is so easy to forget! We casually say, “I reinforced that behavior” or even worse, “I reinforced the dog.” (Thanks Eric Brad, who the other day reminded several of us that you can’t reinforce animals, only behaviors.)
A definition of positive reinforcement:
The presentation of a stimulus following a behavior that maintains, or increases, the strength of the behavior. Positive reinforcers tend to be pleasant stimuli, at least valued, from the learner’s perspective. — Susan Friedman, Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course
So most of us remember the part about adding or presenting something. But that’s only half the definition. The other half is that the behavior must maintain or increase.
It makes sense that when one first learns about positive reinforcement, one tends to focus on the added thing because that’s the thing we are learning to do. Add the cookie, the toy. A beginner (including me) might define positive reinforcement as, “Adding something good after a behavior,” or even “Adding something that the animal likes to the environment after a behavior.” Those definitions focus on our action.
There are two problems here. One is that it isn’t always something generally thought of as “good” or even something the animal likes. For instance, yelling at an animal can be a reinforcer if very little attention is paid to that animal otherwise. And even if they don’t like it it’s often not a punisher. See below. But the more insidious problem is that that definition leaves out the consequence: that the behavior must increase or maintain.
It is not just an aphorism when a behavior analyst says that behavior is defined by its consequences. Look again at definition above. It’s all about the consequences.
Why Wouldn’t Sitting Increase?
OK, so with my little example above. You give your dog a piece of kibble every time she sits, but sitting doesn’t increase. Why might it not? And let’s say that the dog does like the kibble well enough to eat it.
I had a section here with three examples, but I’ve decided instead to be coy (and buy some time to check my terminology). Let’s have a discussion about it. Why might the behavior not increase?
Full disclosure: I was inspired to write this pair of posts after I had left out consequences when discussing reinforcement for the umpteenth time. Just a friendly reminder to myself–and all you out there–to pay attention to future consequences, and remember to include them when we even think about reinforcement and punishment. It’s not just about what we do. It’s about what happens after that.
Check out the other post in this pair: “Only if the Behavior Decreases!”
- Is it Punishment if you Withhold the Treat?
- Shut Down Dogs Part 2
- Threshold: It May Not Be What You Think
- Leaving the Scene: Clarifying the Science of Negative Reinforcement
- OMG Could She Really be Talking about the Continuum AGAIN?