Positive Reinforecement Supports Positive Habit Changes

When explaining the formation of a habit, I mentioned reinforcing behavior that you want to encourage. Our behavior is shaped by the consequences of our choices. Behaviorism discusses positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment as the major ways to shape behavior. In this theory, positive means adding something to a situation, negative means removing something from a situation, reinforcement is used to encourage a behavior, and punishment is used to discourage a behavior.

Positive reinforcement is adding something to a situation to encourage an increase in a behavior; it is like rewarding good behavior or a job well done. A positive reinforcer can be anything from verbal or written praise, a new toy or extra time for a favorite activity (like riding a bike) for a child, a special trip to the spa, or a bonus at work. There are different ‘schedules’ of reinforcement used in behavioral psychology, reinforcing every time a behavior occurs, after a specific number of occurrences, or randomly.

Positive reinforcement is the method of choice for shaping a child’s behavior and can certainly assist you in making changes and meeting your goals. A reinforcer will only encourage a behavior if it is something enjoyable to the person you are trying to reinforce, whether that is yourself, your child, your partner, or an employee.  Verbal praise is always a good choice because it is free and immediately available. You can use personal affirmations to encourage yourself to increase a behavior; with every stride of your jog, you can remind yourself or all the reasons you are running and how much you have already achieved. Combine personal acknowledgment with affirmations from others by updating your online status message. I have watched many of my friends encourage each other to make improvements by leaving positive comments on their updated status messages about their daily efforts.

For other reinforcers it is important to know what is motivating to the person you are trying to effect, as well as the value behind the behavior. A cookie may be motivating to a child, but how does that fit with encouraging a child to exercise or eat broccoli? My mother was very effective in training me to finish my dinner without complaint by allowing dessert afterward. Unfortunately, she unintentionally paired the completion of a good meal with a desire for something sweet. I have to consciously fight the craving for sweets at the end of most meals. I keep reminding myself that eventually I will retrain myself.

What can you do for yourself, say to yourself, or allow yourself to reward your efforts towards your desired lifestyle change? Be creative, be positive, and achieve!

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