Rewards and side-effects, part 1

Child: *Poke poke poke poke poke poke*

Me: “Sweetie, what are you doing?”

Child: “I’m waiting for you to say ‘please stop’ so I can say OKAY!”

Uh oh. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been working on training the children to be more agreeable, and I promised that there would be a reward when they say “OKAY” when given an instruction or correction.

When I promised the reward, I expected that the children would be more likely to say¬† “okay”, but I didn’t expect that the children would actually create situations where they would need a correction, just so they could cooperate.

Yikes. As a parent, it’s a bit shocking, but as a behaviour analyst I shouldn’t have been surprised. Reinforcement (or rewards) can have side-effects!

I experienced this firsthand years ago, when I set up a system of rewards for myself in an effort to shape my behaviour. I had plenty of time and energy, but not much structure or direction, so I made a list of behaviours I was trying to increase. I included some practical tasks, and some fun ones. However, I didn’t calibrate it correctly, and found that I was going way overboard on certain behaviours (e.g., trying to lose weight, and creating things with polymer clay, to be exact) and not making much progress on others.

In other words, rewards usually work,

and sometimes not exactly in the ways we expect.

If you really need to build motivation for a particular behaviour, rewards are a really effective way to do that, and I’ll always suggest that you include them in your behaviour toolbox, but I’d like to spend the next few posts exploring what to watch out for:

Today’s post could also be titled: “Be Careful What You Wish For.” Sometimes we get exactly what we set out to reward… and then what?

Here’s a perfect example of a good reward system gone terribly wrong, from the amazing book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened (this book is not a great manual for behaviour interventions, but it will definitely make you laugh until you can’t breathe.)

Author Allie Brosh describes her plan for dealing with her dog’s aggravating behaviour around other dogs:

Everyone told us, “Oh, it’s easy to train dogs! You just give them a treat when they do something you like!” We asked, “But what if they just every do anything you like?” And everybody said “Oh, then just wait until the dog stops doing what you don’t like, give it a treat, and presto! It’s really, really, really, really, really, really absurdly, unbelievably easy! It has 100 percent success rate on every dog ever. There is literally nobody in the entire world who has been unsuccessful with this method.

This is what was supposed to happen:

  • does thing we hate
  • accidentally stops doing it for 3 seconds
  • gets treat
  • feels happy
  • makes a connection between not doing the thing and feeling happy

But the only thing we managed to accomplish was to teach the helper dog that if she starts doing something we hate, then stops doing that thing very briefly, she can get a treat. And then she can go back to doing the thing we hate.

  • Does thing
  • Stops for 3 seconds
  • Waits for treat
  • Now does thing MORE so she can stop doing it for 3 seconds and get a treat.

This is a huge head-scratcher, right?

I want to leave this with you for a while. I promise I will come back to it in a few days, but I would love it if you would ponder. What would you do? Share in the comments, find me on Facebook, or contact me here!

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