If you’ve ever read or practiced any type of reinforcement, specifically operant conditioning, then you know it is one of the coolest skills you can possibly cultivate, simply because the results you can create through the use of reinforcement are truly limitless.
The basic idea behind operant conditioning is positive reinforcement, and that whenever a behavior is reinforced with a reward, the likelihood of that behavior occurring again increases. Over time you can reinforce and shape behaviors simply by giving or withholding rewards, and these behavior chains can grow increasingly complex.
Using reinforcement you can do the following:
- train your dog to sit, lie down, shake, get a beer for you out of the fridge, and just about any other behavior you can imagine a dog doing.
- train your kids to say please and thank you, do their chores without complaining, go to sleep earlier, eat their vegetables, etc.
- train yourself to get in better shape, quit smoking, start smiling more, have better posture, create a stronger social presence, be more decisive, the possibilities are endless.
In another article, I go over how to use reinforcement to get results, but right now I am going to stick with using conditioning in the appropriate context. It’s my belief that people don’t realize that they are unknowingly reinforcing themselves for behaviors they don’t want in their lives, or that make them unhappy, and by simply changing how you reward yourself, you can shape a life of healthy habits and behaviors that serve you and build you up instead of tearing you down.
Like I said earlier, when you reinforce a particular behavior, you increase the likelihood that the behavior will occur again.
Here is a simple example:
You have a dog that you want to teach how to shake hands. First you get the dog in front of you, holding one of his favorite treats. You interact with the dog, not doing anything special at first, just trying to get some sort of reaction out of him. Eventually after a few seconds of playing, you notice your dog raises one of his paws ever so slightly off of the ground. Immediately you give him the treat to reinforce the behavior.
You continue to get reactions out of him, but now you add the command “shake”. You continue to get multiple different reactions out of him. You don’t worry about him doing anything wrong right now because you know that all it takes is one behavior to reinforce. Eventually he raises his paw again, you say “shake” and immediately give him a treat and enthusiastically pet him to show him he has done something right.
Now you get more reactions out of him, saying “shake”, and this time you only give him a treat when he raises his paw 6 inches or more off of the ground. He does it eventually, and you reinforce him with a treat and praise.
You continue this process of gradual progress and reinforcement until he shakes hands with you on command.
This illustrates the process of shaping at a very basic level, and you can use it to produce almost any behavior in yourself, your pets, and other people. It’s very powerful, and you can be downright nasty with it, so be careful and use the concepts of conditioning with good intentions only.
But here’s my main point:
We Reinforce Ourselves Everyday
We all have something, but do you pay attention to when you reward yourself? Many of us, and I’m certainly guilty of this, reinforce ourselves for bad behavior.
Let’s say you have made a commitment to yourself to go to the gym every week day. That may be a little strenuous or intense for some people, but let’s stick with it for the purpose of demonstrating this example. You make this commitment, and the first day you are really not feeling it. You’re tired, you just got home from work, and the new House of Cards season was just released on Netflix. You decide you’ll make up for it tomorrow, plop down on the couch, crack a beer and hunker down for a Frank Underwood marathon.
It’s a fairly familiar scenario and it’s probably happened to most of us, but we don’t think about the repercussions it as on a behavioral level. Whenever we reinforce a behavior with a reward, we increase the likelihood of it happening again. In this case, we bail on the gym, and then positively reinforce the behavior by watching netflix, and then reinforce the behavior of watching netflix by drinking a beer. It’s an extremely simple example, but it’s also very common, and it demonstrates how many of us unintentionally condition ourselves to repeat and form bad, lazy, unproductive behaviors.
Here’s an example of productive conditioning, using very small steps of reinforcement to condition yourself to follow through on your commitment:
You make your commitment to go to the gym, and you really don’t want to go. You’re tired, you just finished a long day of work, and a new season of House of Cards is available on Netflix.
But at the same time you know you need to get to the gym. You decided to use conditioning to your advantage to not only get yourself to the gym, but have an awesome workout and put yourself on the path to better health. You grab a pack of peanuts and head out the door. The second you get in your car you reinforce yourself with a peanut.
One leg of the journey down, good job. You park your car at the gym, give yourself a peanut. Walk into the gym, peanut reinforcer. Do your first half of your workout, give yourself a peanut and get a drink of water, followed by a small break before you finish your workout.
Finish your workout, followed by a small handful of peanuts(give yourself a jackpot when you finish the entire objective, but don’t get too crazy) and a small rest before heading back home.
You get home, feeling satisfied with your workout, shower up and make yourself some dinner. While you are eating a healthy dinner, go ahead and start that new season of House of Cards. Enjoy the night and get a good night’s sleep.
The second example is a little more in depth, but I wanted to give more detail on how you can use conditioning to positively impact your life and sculpt productive habits into your daily routine.
You start simple, picking a small and quick reinforcer, peanuts. Instead of waiting to reinforce yourself after the entire workout, break down the process and reward yourself after completing each leg of your goal.
One peanut getting in the car, one arriving at the gym parking lot, one walking in the gym, one halfway through the workout, and a small jackpot at the end to give extra reinforcement and tell yourself “good work”. After your entire workout is done and you finish your routine, you reward yourself for completing the task and sticking to the commitment you made to yourself.
Do yourself a favor and mentally run through each of these scenarios one more time. See how you feel after bailing on the gym and lazily melting into the couch, then see how you feel after crushing at the gym.
Then do yourself another favor and do this in real life. Pick something small. Even something as simple as walking your dog or calling your parents. Use small reinforcements along the way to condition yourself the right way and create new and empowering habits in your life.
I believe in enjoying life, and yes, sometimes watching Netflix or drinking a beer is nice. And I’m willing to bet that you that you will look at your life in a different way when you use these things as a reinforcement for a job well done, as opposed to something to sink into when you don’t feel like performing, reinforcing those behaviors of giving up and shirking your duties in the process.
Now go reward yourself with a peanut for reading such an enlightening article and committing to put these potentially life-changing lessons into practice.
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