A Reinforcer or a Bribe?

If we look back at one of my first blog posts, we can recall that reinforcement is any consequence that follows a behavior which increases the likelihood that specific behavior will occur again in the future.  A bribe is “anything given or serving to persuade or induce” (www.dictionary.com).  Numerous times I have heard individuals make the assumption that the use of reinforcement is, at its core, simply a bribe.  However, we are going to take a closer look at the differences between the use of reinforcement and the use of a bribe.  Today we will ask ourselves:  Is this a reinforcer or a bribe?

As previously mentioned, a reinforcer is a consequence.  Stopping there, let’s remind ourselves of what a consequence is:  a consequence is an action that FOLLOWS a behavior.  Reinforcers are provided to an individual as a type of reward in order to increase the chances that the individual will perform that same action in the future.  Reinforcers are NEVER given or offered prior to the desired behavior being completed.

Let’s think about why each of us gets up and goes to work each day.  Do we work for free?  Does the janitor of a school clean the school for no compensation?  Does the CEO of a company receive any type of reinforcement for the work she has put in?  Even as adults, we respond to reinforcement.  For most of us, the reinforcement for working is our paycheck.  We work for two weeks, and then receive a beautiful deposit into our bank account, a reward for our efforts.

What about young children who are learning to talk?  Think back to a child’s first words.  What usually happens after the child emits a sound that mimics a word in their environment?  Mom and dad celebrate!  They get excited, they provide the child with attention, clapping, tickling.  This reinforces the behavior of talking, thus increasing the likelihood the child will attempt to say that word, and many others, in the future.

Now, let’s look at what a bribe is.  When someone is attempting to bribe an individual they are attempting to “buy” that person’s actions.  They are attempting to persuade or entice that individual to do what they want.  When discussing bribery with our kids, this often surrounds a time when the child is engaging in an inappropriate behavior.  For example, a young girl is at Walmart with her mother.  She wants to go to the toy section and look at Barbie’s, but mom tells her they do not have time.  The child begins screaming and crying; the mother grabs a candy bar and tells her to eat this and be quiet.  Not only is the parent bribing the child to do what they want, the parent is also reinforcing the inappropriate behavior.

Here is the most significant difference:  A bribe is focused on this behavior, right now, in this moment.  A bribe does not impact future behaviors; it does not increase the likelihood that the individual will engage in the desired action again in the future.  A reinforcer does not necessarily make an individual more likely to engage in the behavior right now.  It rewards the individual when they do engage in the desired behavior, making them more likely to engage it that behavior in the future.  A bribe cannot be faded- once an individual is bribed to do a specific thing, they will expect to be bribed in the future as well.  Studies have shown time and time again that reinforcement can be faded and still maintain the desired behavior in the future.

My encouragement for the week is this:  When your child is acting appropriately, reward them!  Reinforce those appropriate moments!  Show them that these appropriate behaviors are the ones that will get mom’s attention, allow them to gain access to desired items, make them proud of themselves.  Do not offer a reinforcer after your child has already refused to do something- this is no longer a reinforcer; it is a bribe.  And bribing our children is a dangerous slope.  It teaches them to maintain a “What’s in it for me?” mentality, that can carry over to many aspects of their lives as they grow.

So, next time you are tempted to reward your child with something, ask yourself:  Is this a reinforcer or a bribe?

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