This posting has been weeks in the making. I have had a lot of discussion lately about rewards and another common misconception surrounding behaviourism. Many people against behaviourism cite that rewards don’t always work, are contrived and take away from the natural and intrinsic motivation which should be inherent in our behaviour(s). Where things get tricky is that behaviourism does not speak of rewards, but of reinforcement and these are two different (but often paired together) things.
Rewards are contrived. They are often things that others assume other people want like: money, free trips, candy, pizza lunches, a “good job” sticker or a “free” whatever. It assumes that these “things” are desired and worth our effort to learn and succeed. Reinforcement however, is anything that happens after a behaviour that increases the likelihood of that behaviour happening again. I cannot stress enough the “anything” part of that sentence. A reinforcer can be anything: food, a book, access to friends, a smile, a nice feeling on our skin, a rubber glove, a piece of paper, a silly word, the satisfaction of completing something, etc. I could go on and on. The key point is that reinforcement is defined by its effect on behaviour and not on its pleasing or preferred attributes; hence, the ‘anything can be a reinforcer’, even something we do not like ourselves. If a behaviour is increasing or maintaining itself, then reinforcement is at play. In many cases, reinforcement occurs naturally in the environment or is inherent in the activity; its effect on behaviour go unnoticed. We do not have to be aware of it for reinforcement to have occurred.
If a new behaviour is not increasing or, if an already established behaviour is decreasing, then there is no reinforcement. Therefore, when claims are made about rewards not working, they are correct. The reward is not working because the reward is not acting as a reinforcer. Only sometimes do we get it right where a reward actually functions as a reinforcer. But, we also make the mistake of assuming that because we (or the general population) like a particular thing, that it will be rewarding for others. Even a preferred item (like money) can fail as a reinforcer.
It’s a shame that when we get it wrong, Skinner, and the field of behaviourism gets the blame and the science is written off as dated, useless. To me, it seems that people took one part of Skinner’s ideas and, without much thought for the science behind it, over-generalized its use as a way to ‘motivate’ (cough, cough, control, cough) others. And because this might have increased productivity or “good behaviour” for a while, those implementing the rewards were themselves reinforced for doing so.
See how reinforcement just sneaks right in there? It’s everywhere and it’s happening all the time. Rewards on the other hand, can be hit or miss. Don’t blame behaviourism because the reward failed to do what you hoped to get out of someone. Look for what else is happening (or not happening) and you just might see reinforcement in action.