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Explaining ABA Reinforcement

teacher praising schoolboy 2021 08 28 21 59 42 utc 768x512 1 Explaining ABA Reinforcement

Reinforcement is the most powerful force that controls our behavior. We only do things because we are seeking reinforcement. In other words, we do things to get things. All behavior, except for some biological processes, is goal oriented.

Reinforcement is how we learn new things and how we keep doing it. Usually, we think of reinforcement as something we give someone when they’ve done what we wanted. Think giving your dog a treat when he comes when called. Reinforcement is as simple as that and at the same time, much more complex.

When I tell people that all behavior is goal oriented and done to get something I usually get push back:

“I don’t do things to get something. I do it because it’s the right thing to do.”

“I want to teach my kids that they have responsibilities. They need to do things because it is their responsibility, not because they will get something out of it.”

“That is a jaded point of view. You are saying that behavior is a like a business transaction. Not everyone is selfish.”

I suppose, if you want to look at it from that point of view, behavior is self-serving. You can do something because it is your responsibility, it’s for the benefit of others, and it’s the right thing to do AND still get something out of it.

Researchers have found reinforcement guides all organisms. Scientists have observed the effects of reinforcement not only in humans and animals, but in plants (Hopkins, 2013), fungi (Giraud & Gourbière, 2012), in slime molds (Keller & Segel, 1970) and in microscopic life forms like paramecium (Gelber, 1952). In fact, reinforcement is such a powerful force that it is being used to develop artificial intelligence (Barto & Sutton,1997).

Ask yourself why you do dishes, wear a coat when its cold outside, pay your taxes, or give to a charity. Everything we do when we examine it closely enough has a reason. Everything we do, we do to gain reinforcement of some kind.

Technically speaking, reinforcement is anything (and I mean anything) that happens after a behavior and causes the behavior to return or get stronger. Notice the emphasis on anything.

Reinforcement does not need to be something pleasant. Reinforcement also does not necessarily mean getting something tangible. Reinforcement can be in the form of a tangible thing, an emotion, a sensation, or the avoidance of something tangible, an emotion, or a sensation. Reinforcement can be experienced through interaction with another person (like having a conversation), or scratching an itch.

Arguing with your spouse, going to the dentist, avoiding your housework are all behaviors that get you reinforcement. Arguing with your spouse may get you attention from your spouse or you may gain the satisfaction of being right or maybe you just enjoy the debate. Going to the dentist may be painful, frightening, and generally unpleasant but what you’ve gained is healthy teeth and you’ve gotten away from pain when eating. Avoiding your housework, gets you away from your housework and access to something else that is more pleasant (or at least less unpleasant than housework).

You can see from these examples that reinforcement can be in the form of gaining something or getting away from something. When we gain something, we call this positive reinforcement. When we get away from something we call this negative reinforcement. Positive and negative in this case does not refer to if something is pleasant or unpleasant, if something is good or bad, but if something has been added or taken away. Negative reinforcement is not punishment. Punishment is something that makes behavior go away (but that is another discussion).

Reinforcement comes in all sorts of forms. Even though there are some common themes when it comes to reinforcement but in the end, what is reinforcing for one person might not be reinforcing for another person. We all start off being sensitive to primary or unconditioned reinforcers. These are usually things that keep us alive, healthy and pass on our genes. Food, water, warmth, sex, safety are all primary reinforcers.

As we learn we start to refine our reinforcers and we also make associations and grow our “menu” of reinforcers. So, although I need food to sustain life, lasagna is more reinforcing than beets. For me beets would only be reinforcing if I was starving and there was no other food. My niece will do her homework right after she comes home from school so she can spend some time reading sci-fi novels. Somewhere in her experience sci-fi novels were associated with other things that were already reinforcing and voila – she’ll do homework so she can read her book in peace.

So what make it so special?


Let’s Re-Cap Our Guide To Reinforcement:

Reinforcement causes behavior to increase, stay at same level, or return
Reinforcement can be something tangible or intangible.
Reinforcement can be getting something good or getting away from something bad
Reinforcement is individual and based on experience
Reinforcement can be used to teach new things, expand our experience, help us stay safe and avoid danger. Reinforcement tells us what to do, which means it helps us interact with our world and make our lives better. We can use the power of reinforcement to help those with developmental disabilities, and other learning differences gain new skills in a meaningful and long-lasting way.

Try this at home: Next time your child, partner, or co-worker does something awesome, offer some praise and tell them how much you appreciate what they do. Praise is almost universally reinforcing for humans, its free, and it easy to provide. Keep it up and you’ll notice how those behaviors get repeated. In fact, it might work so well that you’ll be praising people all the time. You might even say that praising others provides you with reinforcement.


Gelber, B. (1952). Investigations of the behavior of Paramecium aurelia: I. Modification of behavior after training with reinforcement. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 45(1), 58–65. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0063093

Hopkins, R. (2013). Reinforcement in plants. In New Phytologist (Vol. 197, Issue 4, pp. 1095–1103). Wiley. https://doi.org/10.1111/nph.12119

Giraud, T., & Gourbière, S. (2012). The tempo and modes of evolution of reproductive isolation in fungi. In Heredity (Vol. 109, Issue 4, pp. 204–214). Springer Science and Business Media LLC. https://doi.org/10.1038/hdy.2012.30

Keller, E. F., & Segel, L. A. (1970). Initiation of slime mold aggregation viewed as an instability. In Journal of Theoretical Biology (Vol. 26, Issue 3, pp. 399–415). Elsevier BV. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-5193(70)90092-5

Barto, A. G., & Sutton, R. S. (1997). Reinforcement Learning in Artificial Intelligence. In Neural-Network Models of Cognition – Biobehavioral Foundations (pp. 358–386). Elsevier. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0166-4115(97)80105-7

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