Behavioral Psychology

How to Elicit Behavior

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Negative Reinforcement Versus Positive Reinforcement

There are two main ways to elicit behavior from those around us, negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. Unfortunately most of use negative reinforcement far more often, which does tend to get good results in terms modifying the behavior in question but also invariably brings with it a lot of emotional and psychological fallout, which leads to a conflicted or even dysfunctional relationship.

In the simplest terms, a negative reinforcement is anything the organism wants to avoid and a positive reinforcement is anything the organism wants to get. In human terms the most common negative reinforcements are criticism, threats, and penalties. The most common positive reinforcements are praise, encouragement, and rewards.

Why do most of us use negative reinforcements over positive reinforcements when it comes to shaping the behavior of those around us when we know from our own personal experience how good it feels to receive positive reinforcements and how bad it feels to receive negative reinforcements?

Correcting Errors to Improve Behavior

We think one of the main reasons why doesn’t have some dark, malicious undertone but rather has to do with our unconscious proclivity to think of eliciting behaviors and improving performance as much more dependent upon correcting errors than on praising what’s being done well. Think about your life as an employee. How often are you praised for the daily tasks that you perform perfectly? It’s almost like after awhile we come to take the desirable behaviors of those around us as the norm, as the flat line expectation, where we feel completely justified, maybe even righteous, in calling out any dips below that line.

Shaping Behaviors Over Time

The other stumbling block for many of us is that we don’t easily think in terms of shaping behaviors, in terms of the evolution of behaviors, in terms of seeing something in a current behavior that while not perfect tends in the direction of the desired completed behavior, so we don’t think praise, encouragement, or a reward are appropriate at the time. Wouldn’t praising or encouraging in this case be strengthening a bad behavior, a behavior that doesn’t make the cut?

Being Surgical With Our Rewards

But we have the choice to be surgical in praising, encouraging, or rewarding one part of the behavior, the part that tends in the direction of the desired completed behavior. We’ve got to take those myriad missed daily opportunities to positively reinforce any behaviors we see that tend in the direction that the person we care about is trying to go and to make more of an effort to positively reinforce those myriad desirable behaviors already present that we may have come to take for granted, that we may have come to consider simply the norm and in no need of comment or appreciation.

Set the Intention to Use Positive Reinforcements

If you set the intention to start doing more of the above you’ll notice great progress in eliciting a desired behavior and you’ll notice the whole tone of your relationship rapidly transform. You’ll notice an increased sense of closeness, a happier, more relaxed atmosphere, and a lot less anxiety and other unwanted psychic conflict. The idea that we’ve got to be hard on people, got to use negative reinforcements to get them to change, is a fallacy based on our own unconscious faulty thinking. When we consciously decide to eliminate as much of the negative reinforcement as possible and replace it with positive reinforcement we change too, we become more caring, patient, happy people and we create the parameters for a healthy, happy relationship where problems and conflicts aren’t ignored but are approached in a more productive way.

Greetings I'm Michael, the owner of Evolution Counseling and the author of all the articles on this site. I got my master's degree from Seattle University in community mental heath counseling and have committed myself to advancing my knowledge of psychology and to evolving my own philosophical system ever since. In addition to the content on this site I offer online coaching using Skype. If you'd like to learn more about it click on the online coaching tab or if you think you'd like to set up a session send me an email at evolve@evolutioncounseling.com.

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