Reinforcement Versus Reward

It’s strange how inspiration works. For my book club selection next month, I chose an oldie but a goodie, Karen Pryor’s Don’t Shoot the Dog. I chose it for a variety of reasons. It is what animal trainers sometimes call “the Animal Training Bible”. This is a book I grew up reading in my career. It influenced me as an animal care specialist and zookeeper, and it is one of the inspirations for The Zookeeper’s Guide to Fitness (or whatever I’m calling it these days). I was curious how my friends in the book club would appreciate a self-help book over their normal selections of science-fiction, fantasy, and occasional memoir/autobiography. I am writing a self-help book. It’s kind of important for me to know how people will potential review my own book.

I chose Don’t Shoot the Dog because it’s an amazing book which has passed the test of time. Written in 1984, everything Karen writes about is still completely relevant. The book can help anyone in all walks of life. Choosing the manual written by the Mother Dragon, Queen of all Animal Trainers, Goddess of Positive Reinforcement Training for book club gave me a great excuse to re-read this must-have on every zookeeper’s wish list.

Within the first sentence of this life-changing book, ideas and inspiration came flooding in. The first line of the book, at least the first line of chapter one, states “A reinforce is anything that, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again.”

That’s it. That’s all I’ve read so far this time around. Well, I read the intro, which discusses there is a difference between reward and reinforcement, but reading Karen’s definition of reinforcement sent me down a rabbit hole of ideas for my own book.

The difference between reinforcement and a reward is whether or not the behavior is likely to continue after receiving the consequence. Immediately my mind went to fitness. Over and over again, I have to remind my friends and clients reinforcement is not a burger after the gym. Why not? Because, while a burger after the gym is rewarding, it is not reinforcing.

Putting aside the idea of eating unhealthy foods after working out negates all your hard work, I want to discuss how rewards don’t help you meet your fitness goals. This concept of reinforcement versus reward has nothing to do with health factors. Although, don’t kid yourself. Eating junk food after you have worked so hard to get in shape is not the answer.

Let’s say you join a fitness challenge where you put yourself on a restricted diet, eliminating all junk food, all processed foods, and all sugary treats for two months. During this time, you set a schedule of strenuous cardio exercise three days a week. At the end of the challenge, you lose ten pounds. To celebrate, you throw a party and have a sheet cake and some ice cream. Is that cake and ice cream at the party a reward or a reinforcement?

Confusing, isn’t it? The cake is a reward. Eating the cake in itself does not increase the likelihood you will continue working out. It already has decreased the likelihood you will eat healthy.

Was there a reinforcement in this scenario? Technically, the losing ten pounds could be considered a reinforcement. Or the act of stepping on the scale and seeing you lost ten pounds is reinforcing. Your success may push you to keep going and lose another ten pounds.

There is another difference between reinforcement and reward, but it’s subtle. Most of the time, you don’t choose your reward, it is chosen for you. When I worked in the theme park industry in Florida, I was awarded the Perfect Attendance award. For a reward, I received a really nice watch. I appreciated the watch, but it wasn’t something I necessarily wanted. If I had been given the choice, I don’t know if I would have chosen a watch. It certainly didn’t increase the likelihood I would never call or show up late for work. It was a nice gesture, and something my company didn’t have to do, but it was not a reinforcement.

Reinforcements are highly prized. Even if the animal doesn’t outright choose which reinforcer it receives, it is something they have a strong history of enjoying. What one person finds reinforcing isn’t the same for everyone. Reinforcement is individualistic.

Now, I’m not going to say there aren’t universal reinforcers, because money is an example of something nearly everyone on earth finds reinforcing. But the amount to truly motivate someone can differ from person to person. You may be highly motivated to workout for the chance to win $200. To someone else, they aren’t as impressed with $200, they might not be motivated until the jackpot hits $500.

All that matters to a reinforcement is if it increases the likelihood of behavior occurring.

If I went to a fitness class and heard a cool song, I could download that particular song to play another time I wanted to workout. Downloading the song just became my reinforcement for working out. And then playing the song reinforces my behavior even more. But this may not be true for everyone. The same song isn’t going to motivate everyone the same way. Downloading a song may be reinforcing for some, but not for others. Reinforcements are individualistic. It’s a choose your own adventure in behavior modification.

Rewards often come way after the behavior has occurred. Again, in my perfect attendance scenario, I was awarded my watch months after the year ended. Most often, reinforcement comes pretty much immediately. At least, it certainly follows the behavior as closely as possible in animal training. This connection between effort and reinforcement is also what drives the behavior in the future.

Look at a real-world example. Companies use “reward cards” as incentives to get customers to come back and shop with them, but it’s really a reinforcement. Getting a discount on certain products, or free merchandise after X amount of money spent are examples of methods to increase the likelihood you will shop with the store more often.

Rewards and reinforcements are different ideals, but people use them pretty interchangeably. Heck, I do it, too. In my book, multiple times. I’m debating whether or not to leave it as it is and include the explanation of the difference. I use the terms reward, reinforcement, special treats, incentives because, as a writer, I hate using the same word thirty times in a paragraph. But it is important to distinguish what you really mean.

Are you rewarding your behavior? Or are you reinforcing it?

Are you going back to your old ways? Or are you on the path to healthy habits to improve your life?


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