Rewards gone wild

Changing others part 3.

By David Joel Miller.

Sometimes positive reinforcement goes wild. Instead of increasing desirable positive behaviors, positive reinforcement incorrectly applied can create more negative behaviors. Let’s look at some examples.

It is Supper Bowl Sunday. Dad wants to watch the game. The kids who are bored to death start getting loud and thrashing around. Dad decides to get this to stop and gives the kids some money and sends them to the store. They don’t interrupt the big game. But then over time, something begins to happen. Dad notices that now every time he wants to watch a game on T. V., the kids get loud and rambunctious. He brings then to the therapist because they are “disrespectful.” What has gone wrong?

It is way too easy to positively reinforce bad behavior. Once you reward bad behavior it begins to expand. Often we do this without noticing that this is what we have done.

Another example. The child, in the store, begins to wine. Mom is getting tired and so she decides she has had enough. She leaves the store and goes home. The problem of whiny kid solved, for now. But over the years mom notices she has a very whiny kid. She can no longer go anywhere the child does not want to go or the whining begins. Another example of how a quick response to a misbehaving child can result in positively reinforcing a bad behavior.

A more adult example. Dad can’t find his keys. He is late for work. He begins to swear and yell. Mom goes running and helps dad find the keys. Problem solved for today. But over time if mom runs every time dad is frustrated and yells, dad will yell and swear more. Mom is unknowingly training dad to yell and swear. Sometimes these case end up in counseling. More of them should. After a while, we start to believe that it is others that are making us mad and of course when mad we should vent our frustration. Anger management classes which include cognitive behavioral methods may be needed to break the cycle of anger, yelling and swear words.

But it can get worse. Even if you do not reinforce bad behavior in your child other people may. I worked with one client who had older sisters. They lived in a poor part of town where there were lots of gangs. They used to dress their little brother up like a gang banger. At three it looked “cute” when he reached thirteen and became a real gang banger they were surprised. They shouldn’t have been. They had positively reinforced his looking like and acting like a gang member so much it was natural for him to become one.

This is one reason it worries me when people dress little girls in sexy or “trampy” outfits. Then when she gets to be a teen they try to clamp down on her clothes and behavior. She has been so thoroughly positively reinforced for acting in a sexualized manner why would she change? Besides she is not home now for you to change her behavior. She is out on an overnight date with that “cute” gang banger.

But other people, sometimes with good intentions, also undo our efforts to help children. A child who is shy and feels lonely often begins to avoid others and hide in the corner. So all the staff starts going over to talk to the child. Soon the child is getting lots of attention, which is what the child wanted. So does the child come out of their shell and start being less shy? Not on your life. All that attention for the “shy behaviors” was so completely positively reinforced that the shyness increases.  The right approach would have been for all staff to have watched the child and when they looked over to smile. Positively reinforce any outgoing behavior no matter how small and it might increase. But one staff member can unintentionally undo the work of all the others. So in the home how often do family members, knowingly or unintentionally undo the change efforts of the rest of the family?

It is very important that all the adults in a child’s life be on the same page when it comes to behavior modification. It is also important to be consistent.

Here is hoping that this series is helping you in your efforts to change both yourself and those around you. More to come.

For more on the process of change see the blog post series “Stages of Change

There is also a series of posts on helping others change, under the heading of “Changing Others.” and “Creating the Change you need.

For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at Thanks to all who read this blog.

If you enjoyed this post or think others might enjoy it please click on one or more of the “Like” or “Share” buttons on this page.


3 thoughts on “Rewards gone wild

  1. Pingback: Changing Others – Part One | counselorssoapbox

  2. Pingback: Changing Others by Influencing | counselorssoapbox

  3. Pingback: Can therapy help if the problem is someone else? | counselorssoapbox

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s