Does positive reinforcement work long-term?

In a very well-written article for Moultrie News, Jody Stallings addresses the topic of positive reinforcement as an educational tool.  His first point is that while positive reinforcement does seem to have benefits, it has stark limits.

His central claims about what those limits are seem to be as follows:

  1. Positive reinforcement doesn’t work so well once children are older.
  2. Positive reinforcement requires us to constantly adapt to children’s changing desires.
  3. Positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away.

Given what I learned in my developmental psychology courses, I think there’s good evidence that claim #1 is largely correct.  While positively reinforcing behavior you want people to keep doing will probably always work with some people, most of us have a moral sense that develops and changes as we get older, and we become more resistant to changing our behaviors without some very compelling reason that’s greater than an extrinsic reward.

I actually think that kind of moral development in which our motivations for behavior shift farther away from extrinsic rewards and become rooted in intrinsic rewards like a desire to be virtuous is a very good developmental path, and to that extent I am always happy to see that people no longer rely on extrinsic rewards as positive reinforcement.

That said, I don’t think Stallings is correct to associate positive reinforcement solely with extrinsic rewards.  When we gain the intrinsic rewards associated with becoming people of good moral character through practicing the virtues, that too is positive reinforcement.  It’s just that the positive reinforcement relies upon our own motivations and principles rather than being founded on rewards we are given from others.

Claim #2, that using the positive reinforcement technique requires us to adapt to children’s changing desires, is also true.  In fact, it seems trivially true.  Of course teachers will need to adapt to the changing desires that accompany growth into adulthood.  That has always been the case, whether some teachers acknowledged it or not.

Children will of course seek different kinds of approval from teachers based on their developmental path and their cultural and family environments.  This only becomes a problem if positive reinforcement is being used as a panacea.  If a teacher is trying to fix all a child’s behaviors with positive reinforcement, it takes a lot of time and resources and may well not be practical.

On the other hand, if positive reinforcement is used in conjunction with punishments for egregious behavior that harms others by teachers who have cultivated a relationship of honesty and trust with their students and can do both punishment and reward credibly, this does not become unhealthy.

Claim #3, that positive reinforcement stops working when extrinsic rewards are taken away, is at least partially true.  Stallings provided an anecdote as an illustration of this claim, so I’ll provide an anecdote to illustrate its limits.

When I was a young child, my parents paid me a penny for every page of a book I had read.  This is precisely the kind of positive reinforcement that Stallings believes doesn’t work after the extrinsic reward is taken away.

And yet, here I sit, not being paid to read any of the hundreds of books, thousands of educational magazine articles, or thousands of practical and personal blog posts I’ve read as an adult.  It seems that the positive reinforcement never stopped working.  What happened is simply that I found my own intrinsic motivations to continue the behavior and no compelling reason to stop it.

Stallings’ suggestion that we cultivate an ethos of living virtuously because it is a good unto itself is of course one way to inculcate this kind of development of intrinsic motivations, and it’s the one I happen to favor myself.

I think Stallings reasoned correctly from his premises in the article, but like many a philosopher examining claims, I’m worried that he got one of the definitions wrong and that it may have caused him to critique the target of his piece more harshly than was warranted.

I think the problem is less that we use positive reinforcement frequently, and more that some folks see it as a panacea or fail to help children find intrinsic motivations for good behaviors that lead to a healthy life.

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2 Responses to Does positive reinforcement work long-term?

  1. dispennett says:

    I originally read this article from a friend’s social media post. I will share my response to her post:

    He makes some valid points about the overuse of positive reinforcement, but it’s still valid as one tool out of many in an overall system of discipline. And actually, similar points could be made about the over-use of punishment as a form of discipline. A few years back I did a three-month student teaching practicum in a first-grade classroom that used a color-coded “clip” chart to rate each child’s behavior. I hated that stupid chart, but it’s what my mentor wanted to use, so I was stuck with it. Anyhow, kids who ended up in the “red” zone would have to stand next to the outside school wall for the first ten minutes of recess. What I noticed is that it was at usually least one or two from the same set of three or four kids (all boys, of course) who were standing and missing the first part of recess, every day, for those three months. Bottom line: Punishment, at least that particular punishment, was not working. (In fact, knowing as much as we do about how important recess and physical exercise are to ensuring that children are able to retain what they learn in school, I would argue that taking away recess is very rarely an appropriate punishment.) Punishment can lead to despair, if overused. The kids who stood by the wall at recess everyday were usually being punished for a series of breaches in self-regulation (talking out of turn, etc.), not for antisocial outbursts or deliberate defiance. Standing by the wall at recess just became part and parcel of their recurring failure to improve their own behavior. I’m not against the use of punishment in every case, but punishments and natural consequences are often far from enough to regulate the behavior of adults, let alone children (think of the thousands of people who end up in jail for drug offenses). There are other discipline techniques, such as use of empathetic reasoning, which can help to raise children who will be loving, caring adults who do the right thing even when nobody is looking. Discipline is rarely a simple thing, and there are often many methods which one can employ. In summary, I agree and disagree with the writer of this article. While I would not catastrophize the taking away of one recess, I would argue it’s probably not the best discipline technique.

  2. dispennett says:

    Thanks for your thorough response to this article, Sam. I enjoyed reading it. Since my area of interest is early childhood development, I tend to be more in favor of the use of positive reinforcement as a mainstay of child guidance, though it is only one tool and is certainly not a fix-all. But the first two points could be just as well applied to punishment as to positive reinforcement The writer brought up the point that positive reinforcement doesn’t work as well when children get older, so it’s also worth pointing out that punishment usually doesn’t work as well when children get older, either. And just as positive reinforcement has to be constantly adapted to children’s changing desires, so does punishment. Taking away a child’s television privileges is probably not going to work if the child is a bookworm, and sending the child to her room as punishment is not going to be much of a punishment if she is an introvert who enjoys time alone.

    Although behaviorism–with it’s talk of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment–can teach us a lot about modifying human and animal behavior, it is certainly not the quintessence of child guidance. It is really the relationships we build with children–relationships based on warmth, empathy, and self-sacrificing love, that are going to turn them into virtuous adults. Intrinsic motivations can definitely be a good source of positive reinforcement, as you mentioned in your analysis. However, intrinsic motivations are not explicable by purely behavioristic means. Before they come to exist in the psyche of the growing young person, they are socially constructed by various interactions with family and loved ones. Even young children, sometimes much younger than we would expect, are quite capable of acting selflessly with only intrinsic reinforcement. I can remember, when I was about five years old, there was an elderly couple who lived across the street from us, Otto and Anna. Otto cut his grass with a push mower every week, and I had a toy lawn mower that I would push, too, paralleling him on his course as he mowed his yard. My mom also remembers seeing me do this, and even told me that I would always complete the entire circuit with Otto, not knocking off work until he was all done. I can even remember “cutting” Otto’s grass when he was out of town for a spell. Now, Otto and Anna had known me since I was two years old, and had really been good neighbors to our family. When I was learning to speak, I didn’t call Anna by her real name, but I called her “chocolate milk,” because she would always give me a glass of chocolate milk when I went over to her house. I may have been only pretending to cut grass, but in my intentions I was helping my friends, whom I had grown to know and love over the previous three or four years. Helping them was an end in itself (I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I was a saint as a child–I had my share of self-serving behaviors–I’m just offering this as an example of how children are capable of much more virtue than we might suspect). And even that desire to help did not simply come into my soul purely out of my own goodness and doing–Otto, Anna, and my parents loved that desire into me, by giving of themselves and taking the time to teach me the right way to live.

    And of course, sometimes the great blessing in being a little child is that one simply does not yet have the mental capacity to say, “OK, if I help Otto mow his grass, then Anna is going to think I’m such a sweet little kid, and then she’s going to give me an extra glass of chocolate milk this afternoon.” One of the curses of adulthood is that we are able to calculate the end results of our actions in such a way. That’s my reason for wanting to become more like a child, so I can give of myself without thinking of the benefit to myself, and thus become more like Christ.

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