Behavior change is a key variable in improving mood, and as a psychologist, I have extensive training in this area.
I first learned how to alter behavior in one of my favorite undergraduate courses, Behavior Modification. I loved learning about ways to influence behavior, and I was particularly fascinated by operant conditioning. The use of reinforcement or punishment to increase or decrease behavior is a simple, yet powerful concept.
The highlight of this class was practicing operant conditioning with Roberta, my lab rat.
When I first heard I would be assigned a rat, I pictured a mouse. A cute, furry, little mouse. Instead, it was just as the instructor described — a rat. A large, white one with pink eyes and an incredibly long tail.
Frankly, she was somewhat terrifying to me. I imagine I was a little scary to her too.
Our class assignment was to train Roberta “to do something amazing.” That was a vague task, and my lab partner and I weren’t sure where to begin. We started by just watching her.
After removing Roberta’s house (a nicely decorated shoebox), we let her explore the large lab table. We wanted to see what behavior was natural to her, hoping that might trigger some creative juices.
She began sniffing and exploring the area, occasionally looking over the edge of the table. We joked that the table must feel like looking over a huge cliff to her. That was the creative spark we needed!
Over the next several hours, we formulated a multi-step task which would be our semester project. Roberta would push a car off a cliff.
We constructed a cardboard staircase with a long slide on the end. The plan was to have Roberta walk up the six stairs and push the car down the slide. It would fly off the table (“cliff”) and crash. She would run down the stairs, scurry to the edge of the table, and peer over the cliff’s edge at the destroyed car. Her final act would be to bow to the “audience” before returning to her home.
My lab partner and I immediately set to work on our plan, feeling positive we would finish this 12 week project early. Our confidence didn’t last long because we quickly discovered that Roberta didn’t like to walk up the stairs.
I suspect the height made her feel vulnerable and exposed, an easy prey to a flying predator. We didn’t have any flying creatures in the lab, but Roberta wasn’t taking any chances.
It was a painstaking process to coax her up the stairs. I had to show her several times, with my fingers, how we expected her to walk up them. She didn’t care. She was not doing it.
We began experimenting with different rewards to see if we could motivate her to climb. After trying several types of cheese and peanut butter, we offered her some Velveeta. It turns out she would do almost anything for that tasty, spreadable cheese. We found the perfect reward for her.
Despite the initial stair setback, my lab partner and I succeeded in training Roberta to do the full task. She performed beautifully on test day, pushing that car off the cliff with the strength and grace of a rat.
In a few short weeks, we had trained Roberta to do an impressive array of non-instinctual behaviors using only positive reinforcement.
The Potential of Reinforcement
Reinforcement is a powerful tool for behavior change. If you want to increase or modify a behavior, add a reward.
Volkswagen has sponsored several clever initiatives that use reinforcement to alter behavior. They designed a trash can that made a surprising noise when people deposited trash in it.
All of these experiments were successful in increasing the desired behavior (throwing away trash, recycling bottles, and taking stairs instead of the escalator) thanks to a little reinforcement.
When we positively reward behavior, whether through verbal praise, financial incentive, or treats, the behavior increases. It’s that simple.
Schedules of Reinforcement
When you are first training a behavior, you want to reinforce it every time. Operant conditioning is frequently used to potty train a child or house train a puppy.
The puppy goes to the bathroom outside, you give him a treat. Over time, as the puppy is more consistently going outside, you switch to intermittent reinforcement, giving a treat every now and then. This helps to maintain the behavior because the dog never knows when it will get a reward.
Intermittent reinforcement is a handy tool you can use every day. Catch your partner, child, or friend doing something good and reward them with a “thank you”, hug, or something else that is highly reinforcing to them.
Too often, we pay more attention to what our loved ones are doing wrong, instead of what they are doing right. Challenge yourself to focus more on reinforcement, rather than criticism, and notice how your interactions change.
Every Day Application
Do you want to practice a fun operant conditioning activity with your friends, loved ones, or random strangers? Consider using clapping, with no words, to encourage a specific behavior.
I recently tried this clapping activity (courtesy of the University of Iowa) with a group of high school students. A student volunteered to be the test subject. She left the room while the group chose the target behavior. They wanted her to walk to the front of the classroom, pull out the sixth chair from the left (out of about 15 chairs), and sit down.
When the student returned to the classroom, we didn’t say anything. She looked at us, started moving her body a little out of nervousness which elicited the first clap.
The more she moved her body, the more claps she received, and the claps increased with intensity as she moved closer to the area with the chairs. In under 3 minutes, she completed the exact task we wanted without a single word being spoken. She followed the clapping. Operant conditioning works!
Maybe you want your partner to do more dishes, or your child to clean their room. Sure, asking them is much easier, but think of the memories you will create if you communicate your desires only through clapping.
There is power in reinforcement! Through kind words and thoughtful gestures, you can create new behaviors or modify existing ones. A very simple concept that has the potential to improve relationships. Is there someone in your life who might benefit from some positive reinforcement today?
Jill is a clinical psychologist, blogger, and runner. She shares behavioral health tips every Sunday on her blog.