Behavioral Psychology

Too Much Praise

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If you use any positive reinforcement too much it ceases to be a positive reinforcement and just becomes par for the course. Sure it’s pleasant for the organism, but it won’t have any effect on future behavior. Remember that the point of a reinforcement, positive or negative, is to make the behavior being reinforced more likely to occur in the future.

Like most trainers, I love using praise to shape behaviors, but praise is a positive reinforcement you have to be especially careful with. There is a delightful part of the book ‘Don’t Shoot The Dog’ where Karen Pryor recounts how at a horse camp a recently arrived camper was petting a horse, saying “Good girl.” The kids who had been there for a while all got on her case, yelling “Why are you saying good girl? She hasn’t even done anything yet!”

The thing to keep in mind, whether you are working with people or animals, is that withholding praise is not the same thing as withholding affection. You want to make sure you use praise with surgical precision, and this means not just worrying about where you use it but also how often you use it. Otherwise the organism will grow so accustomed to the situation that he or she will no longer feel a strong desire to receive praise and it will cease to qualify as a positive reinforcement. The simplest way to define a positive reinforcement is as something the organism really wants. We have said that praise is rocket fuel, the crown jewel of training tools, and this is true but only if you use it sparingly. Just like rocket fuel it can take you into the stratosphere but it burns up fast.

There are lots of other ways that you can show affection in order to help an organism feel safe, wanted, and loved without using praise, and you want to make sure that these ways don’t utilize the same word as your praise word. A solution you can take if you, like the camper from our example above and like most other people, can’t seem to stop yourself from saying “good boy” while petting a dog, is to use “well done” as your praise cue instead. The word you pick doesn’t really matter, what matters is that the organism is aware of what this word signifies, which is recognition in the moment for doing a good job.