Since I've only gotten one question in the brief life of the blog, it seems only fair not to let too long go by before I answer. My sister Lauren, quite rightly, wants to hear the story of Mattea (my daughter) and how I got her to keep her room clean. Which is a good story about reinforcement.
Let's start there -- what's reinforcement? Basically, it's a technical term for a reward. Even more technically, but usefully, a reinforcement is something that causes a behavior to happen more often. You smile at me. I smile back, so you're more likely to smile at me again in the future. When you're training animals, reinforcements are often food. You do a trick, you get a treat. But reinforcements can be anything that the animal/person who is learning wants. More about types of reinforcement some other time.
So here's the thing about how rewards work. They're only effective is they're associated with the behavior that you're trying to encourage. Obviously, if you hand me a cookie at 6pm, that won't necessarily connect in my mind with the fact that I graciously made my bed this morning. In order to communicate with animals about what exactly is getting rewarded, trainers often use a little noisemaker called a clicker to "mark" behavior. You hear the click, you know that whatever you were doing when you heard the noise is what is getting the reward. OK, but we're people. You could just tell me that the cookie is a reward for making my bed. That works, right? Maybe.
I really suspect that for people, as well as for (other) animals, the closer the reward is to the action, the more likely it is to have an effect. Here's where we get to the story of Mattea and the Clean Room.
Let me preface this by saying that room cleaning has always been a huge issue for us. Tea's room has always been a disastrous mess, and telling her to clean it up induced total melt-down screaming fits. "I can't! It'll take all day! No!!!!" Ick. Then we'd get mad, and she'd get madder and either she'd convince us to "help," which meant us doing all the work while she got distracted by each item she picked up or she'd pick up a few things and then be mad when we said she wasn't done. So we said, "OK, you can have a messy room, but you have to clean it up each Sunday." See above for what happened each Sunday. So I said to myself "You have studied all this behavior stuff. You know about using rewards. Reward her for cleaning." So I told her that if she kept her room completely clean, I would triple her weekly allowance (from $3 to $9). That seemed like a pretty good deal, since weekly room cleaning was already expected as part of the $3 allowance. The room was really clean for about a day and a half, but pretty quickly stuff piled up, and so no extra $6, and no change in behavior.
Here are the two really important things that I forgot. 1) Learning happens a little bit at a time. You cannot teach large changes, only a series of small changes. Much more on this another day. 2) Rewards need to be connected as closely as possible to the event they're rewarding. With an animal, that means within a second or two. With people you get a little longer, but a week was clearly not going to cut it.
So...I helped Mattea get her room well and truly clean. (Yes, she actually did work on it this time.) Once it was as clean as I felt it should be, I said that I would check every evening at bedtime. If the room was still this clean, she would get a dollar. Each evening was a new try. If you miss the clean goal one day, you can always fix it by the next day. (But you never make up the dollar you miss -- one clean day, one dollar, pure and simple.) It's been a couple of weeks now -- not exactly a lifetime habit at this point. But her room is strikingly clean, and she's gotten a dollar for every night. Even the night that she got mad because she couldn't find something and started throwing things around. She picked everything up before she went to bed.
Here's the interesting part. I don't always have a supply of dollar bills on me. So I said that I would write down the date of each evening that her room was clean, and that I would actually give her the money at the end of the week. So the actual timing of the reward is not particularly different than the version that didn't work. You could interpret this two ways. One possibility is that, as with the clicker, if you use a marker (my writing down the date) as a promissory note, and that marker happens promptly, you then have considerably more time to deliver the actual reward. Or, on the other hand, you could figure that the difference wasn't really the closer connection between the action (clean the room) and the reward ($$), but rather that the reward was based on a smaller behavior. "Keep your room clean for a week" wasn't a behavior that Mattea could master right off the bat. "Pick everything up before you go to bed" was something she could manage. I expect that success was based on a combination of the two (and probably a whole bunch of other stuff which I can neither identify nor control).
Better still, "pick everything up before bed" seems to have transformed into "try to put things away so that it's easy to have everything clean by bedtime." Here's the really great part. I was forever harassing her to hang up her towel after she took a shower in the morning. The only thing worse than damp towels lying about on the floor is me getting out of the shower to discover that now both of the towels are lying on her bedroom floor. Multiple ick. But if you leave a towel on the floor then your room is not clean, and you don't get a dollar. So she's been hanging up her towel.
Training new behavior: $7/week. Being able to leave her bedroom door open and having a dry towel when I need it: Priceless.