Am I really reaching today, or what? You be the judge!
There is a series of articles in the behavioral psychology literature that questions whether the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is important.*
These papers are often quoted by people who seem motivated to rehabilitate negative reinforcement, although the papers are generally more about nomenclature, and not whether or not negative reinforcement is humane.
Before we go on, here are a working definition of negative reinforcement and some examples:
Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.
Examples are: the buzzer of your alarm clock goes on until you get up and turn it off. You get rained on until you open an umbrella. A dog’s ear is pinched until she opens her mouth to accept the retrieve object.
Negative reinforcement can be involved in something as trivial as scratching an itch to something as serious as running for one’s life from a predator. There is a huge range of severity. It’s not all about pain.
When we consider dog training, we need to make a distinction regarding handler mediated negative reinforcement and automatic reinforcement. Stepping in and putting a behavioral requirement on the removal of an aversive is different from the myriad ways that dogs take action in their own lives to remove an aversive, be it mild or extreme.
Finally, there are some borderline cases where it is hard to determine whether the process involved is positive or negative reinforcement.
That is what I’m writing about today.
The classic borderline case is the thermostat. When it’s too cold and you go adjust the thermostat by two degrees, are your actions reinforced by the subsequent pleasant feeling of warmth, or the relief from the uncomfortable cold? People use the borderline cases to support arguments made in favor of doing away with the distinction between R+ and R-.
Those who like to argue that negative reinforcement is “not so bad” also like to bring up this example, even though it is not particularly typical of reinforcement scenarios.
I ran across one of these ambiguous situations recently in my own life and am going to share and analyze it here. Let’s see whether the fact that it could go either way makes the negative reinforcement any more benign.
Personal Example: My Shower
I am an indifferent housekeeper at best. I am prone to clutter, and tend to barely keep up with the dog hair on the floor and the dirt the dogs track in.
I have a bit of a problem with mold in my house, and my shower had recently gotten pretty bad, such that even with a thorough cleaning I couldn’t get it to look nice. I have tried several times in the past to change my behavior about that, but failed.
So when it got moldy again about four months ago I made a thoughtful plan and tried again. First I threw out and replaced my shower curtain liner and in-tub mat. I scrubbed the shower and tile and sprayed it with bleach. I did this repeatedly over the course of a few days until it was beautifully clean.
Then I thought about antecedents and reinforcers regarding the shower cleaning behavior and made a plan to maintain the shower and keep it clean.
I purchased two kinds of shower spray: one with bleach and one without. Both claim to keep the shower clean just by spraying on. (Bear with me. I’m not much interested in the details of housecleaning either, but they are relevant here.) My goal was to arrange antecedents to make the desired behavior as easy to maintain as possible.
I then adopted a loose schedule of using the cleaner with bleach a couple of days a week and the less noxious (but also probably less effective) one a few times a week. I wasn’t sure exactly how much would be necessary to keep the shower clean, but was ready—gasp—to do something every day if I had to.
So far I have kept up–it’s been a few months now–and the shower/tub is sparkling clean.
Question: What is Maintaining the Behavior?
Is it negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement?
Let’s map out our possible contingencies. We are talking about a reinforcement scenario (not punishment) because we are increasing/maintaining a behavior: spraying stuff on the tub and tile.
Positive reinforcement version
- Antecedent: Schedule says it’s time to spray down the shower with cleaner
- Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
- Consequence: Shower looks and smells pleasant and clean
Negative reinforcement version (avoidance)
- Antecedent: There is the threat of mold in the shower
- Behavior: I spray cleaning agent on the shower tile
- Consequence: Thread of mold is relieved
So which scenario is it, and does it matter?
Can We Tell By Observation?
First, let’s think about whether there is any way that a person observing my behavior would be able to tell. Is there a special way to apply shower spray that indicates one’s motivator is to prevent mold? Or is there an indicator that one loves the look of a sparkly clean shower?
Behaviors maintained by negative reinforcement tend to be minimal. The person or animal tends to do the very least he or she can do to get the result. I believe this has shown to be true in the workplace, and can also often be observed in dogs that are trained using aversives only.
As Aubrey Daniels says:
Positive reinforcement maximizes performance, while negative reinforcement gets a level of performance that is just enough to get by, just enough to escape or avoid some unpleasant consequence.–Bringing out the Best in People, Aubrey Daniels
In the case of the shower, could we tell by watching? If we observed my behavior over time we could note whether I sprayed the whole shower or just the parts that tend to get moldy. We could also note whether I made efforts to determine the minimum amount of work it takes to keep a shower clean (or mold-free) using the methods I chose.
Also we could try to tell whether I took any enjoyment out of the clean shower. Do I go out of my way to admire it? Do I polish parts of it to make it extra sparkly?
But since I’m a human being with many possible motivations, I think it would be a little difficult for an onlooker to tell what is driving my shower cleaning behavior. I may use minimal efforts because I want to save on cleaning supplies or I like to make a game out of efficiency. When I look at the shower, I may be looking for flaws, not admiring my handiwork.
But I know which it is!
So Which Is It?
What is driving my behavior is the threat of mold. I hate it. I remind myself to notice how nice the shower looks, but that is an incredibly weak reinforcer for me.
Even though I have worked out a system with minimal effort and virtually no elbow grease, I HATE having to spray stuff to maintain the clean shower. There is no pleasure in it for me, before or after. I am continually trying to figure out whether I can skip a day, or two, or maybe leave off the bleach version for a while. The situation is doubly frustrating because I feel like I can’t mess up, because if the mold comes back even a little bit, it will be that much harder to eradicate. So I don’t even know where the boundary for “minimal” is, but I am sure trying to find it.
This is almost a purely negative reinforcement scenario for me.
Application to Dog Training
I have previously written about two situations in which it could be hard to tell the difference between positive and negative reinforcement in dog training. One is when training with food if the dog has been deprived. The behaviors that allow a starving dog to eat are negatively reinforced as her hunger is assuaged. Likewise, a game of hiding from your dog could involve either positive or negative reinforcement.
However, I think the most common situation where positive and negative reinforcement can be confused is when dogs are said to work for praise. Yes, you read that right. Compared to food and play, praise is a very weak positive reinforcer for most dogs, and often non-existent unless it has been deliberately paired with a primary reinforcer and/or the bond with the human is very strong. More often praise is a safety signal, a sign from the human that, “You have done the right thing and I am not going to hassle or pressure you anymore.”
So we may think our dog is working “for the joy of a clean shower” when she really is working to escape the mold. And, unlike humans, dogs tend to be a little more obvious about how happy they are with an interaction or a method, if we can just learn to pay attention.
Even if it is a negative reinforcement scenario, cleaning the shower is one of those fairly benign sounding applications. Perhaps I sound like a pretty spoiled person to be complaining about it. I know that I am privileged for that to even be on my radar as a problem, for sure. But you know, when searching for photos to use with this post, I got grossed out. And even though I found a couple of moldy tile pictures on Flickr that would be permissible to use, I ultimately decided against it because they were disgusting. I didn’t want icky pictures of mold on my blog.
I have been describing an “automatic” negative reinforcement process. My own actions directly remove the aversive, the threat of mold. How would I feel if someone used the threat of mold to get other behavior from me? Easy answer. I wouldn’t like them very much. Especially since I am so easy to please with food or money, grin. Really, why on earth would someone want to use a threat instead?
These kinds of analyses of everyday activities are helpful to me. I hope they are helpful to others, and I hope I didn’t overshare. I have contemplated trashing this post several times, but then I thought perhaps it would help someone understand negative reinforcement just a little better. When one is first learning about the processes of learning, negative reinforcement methods can sneak in, seeming like magic. Look, I didn’t have to hurt my dog or give it food either! That’s one of the main reasons I write about it so much. It can be quite insidious.
Got any personal negative reinforcement stories?
- World Dog Trainers’ Motivation Transparency Challenge
- The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
- Punishment is not a Feeling
- Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
* This is the first in the series of articles I mentioned. Even the last part of the title indicates that the paper is about nomenclature and not excusing negative reinforcement. Michael, Jack. “Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things.” Behaviorism (1975): 33-44.