No Good or Bad

A while ago, I shared some of the basics of operant conditioning, the learning/teaching method animal trainers use to teach the critters all those amazing behaviors, and help take care of the animals better. I mentioned that there are two main types of consequences that follow behavior– punishment, which reduces likelihood of a behavior occurring, and reinforcement, which encourages behavior. While punishment and reinforcement are certainly the main types of consequences, it’s important to make distinctions, and clarify that learning and operant conditioning are little bit more nuanced than a simple “black and white” issue.

Give and Take

So, we learned behavior is based on the consequences of our actions. When we like the response to the behavior, we are more likely to continue doing that learned action the next time the situation presents itself. If we have a headache and take an aspirin, and the headache goes away, we have likely reinforced the act of reaching for medicine the next time our head hurts. If your next door neighbor makes you a pie for helping her look for her missing cat, you are likely to help her out again in the future.

When the consequence is less than desirable, it discourages us from doing the same behavior in the future. If you ate at a new restaurant, but came down with food poisoning afterwards, you are less likely to eat at that restaurant ever again. Punishment is heavily used in our society to hopefully ward off potential law-breakers. If you speed, drive drunk, or drive recklessly, you could lose your license (or go to jail). This promise and threat keeps many drivers from going too fast, even when they are in a hurry.

In each of those situations, there were just small differences in how the consequence affected our behavior. In one instance, we are given something that either encourages behavior or decreases the likelihood of us repeating behavior. In the other, something is taken away or removed which either encourages or discourages future behavior.

Behavior scientists call the different types of punishment and reinforcement, positive and negative. I know, it’s a bit confusing, because we associate the words positive and negative with “good or bad”. This is why I emphasized there is no good or bad in my last post. But it’s even more important to drive this idea home here, when discussing positive and negative consequences.

It’s not the same exact thing, but positive and negative electrons aren’t “good or bad”. In the case of behavior science, positive means something is given to the learner or added to the learner’s environment, and negative means something is removed. A more layman way of naming them today might be Addition and Subtraction.

The Quadrant of Consequences

When we plot all the consequences out in how they affect behavior (punishment and reinforcement) and how they are received (given something or something taken away), we come up with the Quadrant of Consequences (where did that announcer voice come from?)

I think Homer Simpson sums up the quadrant nicely…

Here’s my geeked out table:

Something Given to LearnerSomething Taken From Learner
Increase BehaviorPositive Reinforcement: R+
Giving something the learner likes to increase likelihood of behavior
Another Name: Additive Incentive
Examples: Paycheck, gambling, video games
Negative Reinforcement: R-
Taking the Bad away to encourage behavior
Another Name: Incentive by Removal
Examples: Prevent sunburn with sunblock, medicine to treat pain/headache, seatbelt alarm
Decrease BehaviorPositive Punishment: P+
Giving something the learner doesn’t like to decrease likelihood of behavior
AKA: Additive Demotivator
Examples: Speeding Ticket, spanking, yelling
Negative Punishment: P-
Stopping likelihood of Behavior by Taking away something good
AKA: Demotivator by Removal
Examples: “Timeouts”, taking away license or driving privileges, ignoring

Why This Matters

In animal training, at least with modern trainers in zoos, humane society, pet shelters, and most movie studios and animal facilities, we need to understand what and how we are motivating, or demotivating our animals. We also need to know about the different subtypes of the Quadrant because, believe it or not, just focusing on reinforcement isn’t enough. As animal trainers, we focus on Positive Reinforcement. And I found that this correlates to our own lives as well, especially with our fitness and healthy habits.

First, consider that animal trainers use punishment as a consequence only as a last resort. This is usually an emergency situation, where the animal needs medical care, but training methods are ignored by the animal due to pain or fear. It’s not fun for anyone involved, and it drains a lot of the trust between animal and caretaker. But if the animal’s life is on the line, punishment is an allowed option.

If punishment is our last resort, then negative reinforcement must also be considered a non-preferred method, as well. Why? Because if you look at the Quadrant, you see that punishment is hinted or threatened in some capacity. It becomes a Do this or accept the punishment that will follow. We take medicine to remove the punishing pain. We put sunblock on to avoid a nasty sunburn. We put on the seatbelt to shut off the annoying dinging noise from our car. If we don’t do the behavior, the consequence is punishment.

And that leads to the other issue with negative reinforcement– it teaches mediocrity. If you are constantly doing a behavior simply to avoid the not-so-fun consequences, then we end up performing the bare minimum to get by.

Life is full of these types of consequences. To see negative reinforcement in action, watch a documentary about the Serengeti. Gazelle are powerfully agile and fast animals. But they don’t run for long extended periods of time. They simply can’t sustain that kind of energy output. So gazelle have learned, from experience and from watching other gazelle, that they only have to run fast and jump around long enough to escape their predators. No more, no less. As soon as the gazelle escape the lion or cheetah, they slow down. Their reward is getting to live another day (which is definitely a good thing), but the behavior they learned is situation specific: Run as fast as you can until the threat is gone.

And this is what happens when negative reinforcement is used on us. We perform only the bare minimum to avoid the punishment. No more, no less.

Negative reinforcement can be incredibly motivating. I’ve heard of programs where you make a wager, and it’s usually an “ouch” figure that if you lost, would be devastating. If the program is exceptionally cruel (in my opinion), they will up the stakes by making the donation, if you don’t complete the goal, go to an organization you despise. Think: a Republican having money donated to the Democratic Party, or a zoo-lover having the money go to PETA.

I know what you might be thinking– yeah, I’d be motivated as HELL to achieve my goal if that money was on the line. And if you want to meet your criteria, this might be a good option. If you ONLY want to meet your criteria. However, many of us don’t want to just meet our criteria. Because we’ve been there, done that. We meet our fitness goals, and go back to our old habits, get out of whack, and have to start all over again. Again and again.

In the above scenario, what happens when we reach our goal? Are you motivated to keep going? What if the struggle was difficult, challenging, and you experienced ups and downs on your journey? The only thing that kept you going was the fear of losing all that money, especially to an organization you wouldn’t want to support. This is the mediocrity that negative reinforcement encourages. Meet the goal, and then finally, you can relax.

I think most of us want to EXCEL in our goals. Reach for the stars, and keep going. Wouldn’t you want to be THE BEST version of yourself you could be? This requires a positive reinforcement mindset. Out with the punishment. Out with negative reinforcement. We aren’t aiming for mediocrity. We learned in the previous post that punishment is only good at teaching what NOT to do. We want to learn healthy habits and excellent behaviors that will help us shine bright and change our lives.

So add some sweet awesome sauce to your life and your fitness. Learn how behavior science can help you achieve success, and so much more!

I’m Writing a Book

Did this post pique your interest in learning how positive animal training methods can help you in your fitness? I’m writing a memoir about my life as an animal trainer working with sea otters, dolphins, polar bears, and elephants. These animals were the best fitness trainers anyone could ever ask for. They reminded me of all the ways fitness can be fun, engaging, and impactful.

The book is due out in early 2023. Stay in touch, subscribe to our newsletter, join our Patreon page, and stay connected to find out more.

Here is some positive reinforcement encouragement for reading my post:

This is not mine, but it’s seriously the funniest thing I’ve seen on the internet in a while…

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