Rewards and punishments
Rewards and punishment modify behavior. I knew that. Everyone knows that.
But what I didn’t realize is this: a stimulus is a reward or a positive reinforcer if it increases a behavior.
A stimulus is a punishment or a negative reinforcer if it decreases a behavior.
Those definitions are simple. Take a moment and decide whether they make sense.
They seem correct to me, but they lead to some counterintuitive conclusions.
Jim and Bob are having a nasty argument. Both are saying nasty things to one another. Jim’s nasty comments increase the frequency and intensity of Bob’s nasty comments back. So Jim’s nastiness is a positive reinforcer—a reward—since it produces more nasty behavior from Bob.
Bob suddenly stops arguing. He looks at Jim and says: “Why are we arguing? We’re friends. And he hugs Bob. Bob stops arguing and hugs back. Jim’s action was a negative reinforcer—a punishment(?) since it produced less of the hostile behavior.
That seems backward. When you behave angrily toward someone who is behaving angrily to you, it’ a reward, that’s what the definition says. That’s barely comprehensible.
When you show affection to someone who’s behaving angrily to you, it’s a punishment. That’s what the definition says. That makes no sense.
It might help to call it “positive reinforcement,” not reward and “negative reinforcement,” not punishment. But the fact remains: anything that causes a behavior to increase is—by definition—a positive reinforcer. Anything that causes a behavior to decrease is—by definition—a negative reinforcer.
A baby is hungry and starts crying. You give it food. The crying stops. Was giving it food a reward for crying? Not according to the definition. Giving it food was a negative reinforcer because it stopped the crying.
You ignore it. The crying intensifies. So not giving it food was a positive reinforcer for crying.
An older child is upset about something and starts having a tantrum. You ignore it. The tantrum continues. So ignoring a child’s tantrum is a reward, since it maintains and increases the behavior.
A writer writes something. Sometimes he posts it and sometimes he doesn’t. What rewards the writer for posting so that he does more? What punishes the writer for posting, so that he does less? What rewards and punishes him for not posting? How can the writer change his system of rewards and punishments to get more of what he wants?
In the case of this writer, the rewards are infrequent and inconsistent.
I like writing, and making words appear is rewarding by itself. But there must be behaviors that lead from written words to published posts whose rewards and punishments lead away from the behavior that I want to increase.
Here’s how the process might unfold:
Decide that the piece is done enough
Check grammar and polish
Find links and references
Find images (when needed)
Copy/paste into blogger
If I decide that a piece of writing is done enough, it means that the fun part—writing—is over, and I have nothing ahead of me but the tedious steps required to publish. If I don’t declare it as finished, I’m rewarding myself, so of course, I keep writing and revising forever. That’s where the reward lies.
Conversely, every time I write a draft and start to publish it, I’m punishing myself. The hoped-for reward of being done may be enough to carry me through to completion, but the more I punish myself for trying to publish, and the more I reward myself for giving up, the more I get of the behavior that I don’t want.
The remedy is to fix the reward structure.
I need to reward myself a lot more for publishing. Daniel recommended victory laps, and I’ve done a few, but inconsistently. I need to reward myself with victory laps and to make sure I keep rewarding myself that way, and I need to reward myself for rewarding myself!
I need to celebrate declaring a post “good enough.”
Instead of moving immediately into the tedious process of spell- and grammar-checking, I need to take a moment and take pleasure in having produced an acceptable draft.
And then I need to fill that tedious process with small rewards. Every step toward publication needs an appropriate celebration.
I’m drafting this as part of my Daily Pages. When I hit 750, that’s cause for celebration. When I start to edit it, that’s cause for celebration. And so on.
So here we are at 750. Yay! And on to grammar checking.