Wednesday, May 12, 2010

In Which Lynn Wrests Back Control of her Blog to Talk More About Reinforcement

Here's the thing. I pay for the internet access. It's my blog. I don't mind sharing with Tazzie, who is, in all fairness, a more entertaining writer than I am, but I insist on at least getting my turn.

Now, where were we...ah yes, reinforcements (aka rewards). I believe before someone's long, pointy nose butted in, I was talking about how the properly applied use of rewards had resulted in a radically cleaner room for my daughter. It turns out that at this point in her 11-year-old life she is strongly motivated by money. Mostly because it will purchase the kinds of food that I refuse to buy. Some other time I will go on about just how much Mattea and Taz are alike.

But not now, because what I was really trying to get down to was the question of what kinds of rewards get results. People like money. Dogs like food. We know that, and we tend to rely on it in getting both people and dogs to work. But those aren't the only things that people and dogs like. People like food. Dogs don't much like money, although Coretta once ate a paycheck when she was a puppy. (Try explaining that one to the treasurer!") The crucial thing about reinforcements is finding out what is rewarding to the particular being that you're trying to motivate.

People quite commonly train dogs by rewarding them with games, such as tugging on a tug toy. And, of course, petting and praise. But you can also reward a dog by giving it permission to sniff something interesting, letting it chase you, scratching that special spot, throwing a ball or doing whatever goofy thing your dog finds entertaining. Sue Ailsby, a well-known trainer, says that giant schnauzers think it's hysterical when you try to grab their front paws. I wouldn't know -- I've never had giant schnauzers. Coretta hates having her paws touched, and Taz would prefer that you scratch the tops of his feet. A reinforcer is only a reinforcer if the one on the receiving end likes it. For some people, the biggest reward you can give them would be public recognition. Other people would rather have their teeth drilled than stand in front of a room full of people applauding.

So given that dog trainers have figured out such a wide range of ways to reward dogs, why do we not get that creative with motivating people? Sure, people work for money -- we need money, and we like to get more of it. But there are other things we like as well. It seems to me that if I were managing a group of people in an office, that it would serve me very well to figure out what everyone liked. "Wow, Jordan, thanks for putting in all the extra time getting this report ready. It looks great -- why don't you take the rest of the afternoon off?" "Jesse, that's the best idea I've heard all meeting! (Tosses piece of chocolate to Jesse)" "Pat, thanks for listening to my long diatribe about upper management. I know you'll keep what I said confidential. Hey, I was wondering if you had any new pictures of your grandkids to show me."

The great thing about using a variety of rewards with kids is that the proper use of timing turns things that they were going to get anyway into reinforcements for behaviors that you wanted. "Just as soon as your homework is done you can go over to your friend's house." "Once you've finished your vegetables you can have dessert." "If you get the dishes put away by 9:00 you'll be able to watch Glee."

There is, in fact, no reason why you can't use rewards to modify your own behavior. I'm sure I'm not the only one who tells myself "Two more paragraphs and you can play a game of solitaire." "Answer this tricky email, and then you can look at Facebook." I once knew a guy in seminary who would reward himself for completing a paper by giving himself permission to go use the bathroom. I'm all in favor of the judicious use of life rewards, but that's just sick.

What do you find rewarding?

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