Behavioral Psychology

Praise Versus Encouragement

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We tend to lump praise and encouragement together under the rubric of ‘awesome positive reinforcements’. They share the qualities of making the subject feel really good, and when used in proper doses they make a desired behavior more likely to occur in the future. I started thinking about what makes them different, and the conclusion I came to had the unintended consequence of showing that there is no room for the judgmental, negative, critical attitude as a trainer.

At the most fundamental level, encouragement expresses the fact that the job is not done while praise expresses the fact that the job is done. Of course, when you’re training behaviors you often use shaping techniques so that there are many instances in the behavioral chain where a link in the chain is ‘done’ while the fully formed behavior is not, and it’s okay to praise the subject when each of these links is performed well.

But really what encouragement is doing is recognizing the seed in there that will eventually sprout. You are making it clear that you’re behind the subject, that you believe in his or her potential even if the behavior is not yet up to snuff. Praise, on the other hand, is recognizing in no uncertain terms that the behavior, at whatever level of competence you are working at, has been performed up to the desired level.

Some trainers, and by trainers we mean parents, teachers, coaches, or anyone else trying to elicit some behavior, work with the mentality that if something is not praiseworthy then it must be grounds for criticism. But you can always replace criticism with encouragement, in effect replacing a negative reinforcement with a positive reinforcement, and you’ll get better results without having to feel inauthentic. You don’t have to praise a behavior that you don’t feel is up to par; instead you can focus on what is right about that behavior and then encourage your subject in the direction of improving upon it in order to reach the point where praise is deserving.

Thinking in terms of using encouragement when a behavior is not yet there and praise when it is there will make training an overwhelmingly positive experience for you and your trainee, and it’s guaranteed to get better results because your subject will want to work harder and longer and won’t have to deal with any of the psychological and emotional distress that always accompany negative reinforcements.