Reinforcement vs Bribery

Reinforcement vs Bribery…

“Be not astonished at new ideas; for it is well known to you that a thing does not therefore cease to be true because it is not accepted by many.” -Spinoza

Some people find it hard to see the difference between reinforcement and bribery.

Some people think ABA is unethical because of their misunderstanding of these issues… “(ABA is)…a highly adult-controlled programme with pre-determined targets which are rewarded with…spoonfuls of jam” (Jordan & Powell, 1999:21)

Such objections regarding the use of reinforcement and its close association can be attributed to ignorance of the science behind reinforcement. Most people fail to see the difference and therefore lump the two together.

So- its important to understand the difference;

In the ‘REAL’ world bribery would be an inducement to do something improper…

“Bribery is a crime implying a sum or gift given that alters the behavior of the person in ways not consistent with the duties of that person. It is defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of any item of value to influence the actions of an official or other person in discharge of a public or legal duty. The bribe is the gift bestowed to influence the receiver’s conduct. It may be any money, good, right in action, property, preferment, privilege, emolument, object of value, advantage, or any promise or undertaking to induce or influence the action, vote, or influence of a person in an official or public capacity.” (Thanks to Wikipedia!)

In education/parenting/ABA bribery would be occurring in the following examples;

1) Waiting until a student refuses to do something and then negotiating a reward.

2) when the student is disruptive you tell him that when he stops he will receive a reward…”oh dear- if you don’t stop whining i won’t be able to give you computer”—>it could even be argued that by reminding the student about the contingencies during the exhibition of disruptive behaviours constitutes a mild form of reinforcement (talking about something nice IS a pleasant experience for most of us) and thereby increasing the likelihood of the disruptive behaviour occurring again.

Also by talking about the contingencies provides an opportunity for the student to negotiate or consider if its worth changing their behaviour.

3) Automatically promising an incentive at the time a request is made- this can lead to a dependency on the promise of reward and decline when the promise is not made.

4) Teasing a student with desired reward/incentive but withholding delivery until requested behaviour occurs.

So- one important thing to remember is TIMING- be very careful about when you choose to talk about reinforcers. It can make all the difference between a behavioural contract/positive reinforcement and bribery…

When someone asks you about bribery- perhaps dismissing what your doing as using bribery you can respond with the question “do you consider a pay-check to be bribery?”

if they say yes then you can begin to worry about their understanding of the world. If they say no then you can say what you are doing is simply breaking down the wages/pay-check and delivering it when appropriate.

If this person is in education/parenting and says a similar thing you can try and explain further (if someone is ignorant it’s ok to try and help them out- if they are wilfully ignorant that’s a whole other thing.)

You could suggest that all education operates at age appropriate levels of reinforcement (smiles, ticks, smiley stickers, warm attention lead onto grades on coursework/GSCEs/A levels and then onto BSc or Phds or BCBA’s!) and that what you are doing is applying systematically the knowledge that has been known for centuries amongst good teachers and good parents…

and that for a large percentage of students on the autism spectrum, the internal motivation to learn can delayed or absent- so its provided externally and then FADED over time once internal motivation emerges and establishes itself within the student.

Thorndike did a whole bunch of experiments on cats & rats trying to establish the learning that takes place via trial & error… but B F Skinner advocated that we should look to ‘set the stage’ for desired behaviours and then provide reinforcement when they occur.

By letting the reinforcer tell the story you are more likely to promote generalisation and ‘internalisation’. Where the individual is empowered. They can then better access a wider range of events, activities and experiences.

Have a think about what percentage of the behaviours/responses you are teaching your students are reliant on antecedent manipulation vs. reinforcement control. Think about constantly shifting the balance & percentage towards reinforcement control…

This is the way to educational excellence- DISCLAIMER: All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.

Another time we will explore the importance of seeing reinforcement as something embedded in the world, and not just the overt and deliberate acts by teachers or parents. For example, turning a steering wheel allows you to go in the direction you desire, by turning a key/door knob; you access the next room. As one of the founders of our field remarked;

“the everyday environment is full of steady, dependable, hard-working sources of reinforcement for almost all of the behaviours that seem natural to us. That is why they seem natural to us” Don Baer (1999)

Good luck with the process!

The TLC Team

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