Negative Reinforcement: Doing Enough to Get By…

Monday’s blog was on punishment; Tuesday’s, extinction. Both punishment and extinction are behavioral consequences that stop behaviors.

Think of punishment like you would getting pulled over by a policeman. He turns on his lights, fires up his siren, and pulls you to the curb. Then he walks to your window and asks, “Do you know why I pulled you over, sir?”

You lie and answer, “No. What’s going on?”

“I clocked you going 68 in a 55. Can I see your license, registration and proof of insurance, please?” he asks.

You were speeding. You got caught. It’s going to cost you time and money. That’s called punishment. When the policeman pulled you over, his punishment stopped your speeding behavior.

How fast are you going to drive for the next 15 minutes after you get the ticket? I would suggest that getting a ticket isn’t going to make you drive 45. And you probably wouldn’t be stupid enough to drive 65 mph, either. You’ll likely come close to the speed limit, setting your cruise control around 60.

Punishment stopped your speeding behavior. But now your behavior comes under negative reinforcement. Under negative reinforcement, you do just enough to get by, no more, no less. In this case, you go slow enough to avoid another ticket.

Extinction. Your boss asks you write up a summary of the projects you’re working on and to send him a copy by the end of the week. Even though you have a ton of work to do AND today is the only day you’re in the office before leaving for a previously scheduled vacation, you stay late and send it to him before leaving the office around 8:00 pm.

A couple of weeks later after a staff meeting, you stop your boss.

“Did you get everything you needed from my project updates?” you ask.

Your question is met with a blank stare.

“A couple of weeks ago,” you clarify, “you asked me to send you a write up of what I was working on. I just wondered if you had any questions,” you prompt.

Finally, a light goes on for your boss. “Oh, those!” he exclaims. “You know, things have been crazy for me. So to tell you the truth, I haven’t even looked at it yet.”

You worked your butt off to get your boss what he wanted before you left town. It meant working late and pushing off other things. And then your boss didn’t even look at it! In fact, he didn’t even know what you were talking about!

The next time your boss drops an urgent assignment on your desk that reeks of busy-work, how quickly are you going to do it? I would suggest that you might be tempted to put it off until you know that the request was not just a whim. Oh, you’ll  not blow off any assignments, but you won’t break any speed records turning them in, either.

Extinction stopped your eager beaver behavior. And now your behavior comes under negative reinforcement. Under negative reinforcement, you do just enough to get by, no more, no less. In this case, you might wait until he asks you a few times before deciding to get on it.

Under negative reinforcement, people work to avoid or escape something unpleasant like additional work, inconvenience, pain or embarrassment.

Why do you pay your taxes? Maybe you’re a true patriot. Most likely you want to avoid tax penalties.

Why do you exercise? Maybe you feel good when you go to the gym. Or it might be that you want to avoid a crippling stroke or heart attack.

Why do you see your dentist every 6 months? Maybe you’re a fear junkie. Or perhaps you wish to avoid even bigger problems like a root canal.

The point is that negative reinforcement DOES make people work. But only to a point. Why? When you’re operating under negative reinforcement, you do what you do because you have to do it, not because you want to do it.

So if you don’t care for your boss, you might get him something for his birthday. But you will complain while doing it. And you’ll probably do it at the last minute. You won’t have any joy will doing it, and you can’t wait until it’s over.

Contrast that with buying a special birthday present for your child or the love of your life. In that situation, you do it with a smile on your face. You plan for it well in advance. You have joy while doing it, and you can’t wait to do it again.

That’s a pretty big difference, isn’t it?

Next week…the power of positive reinforcement. Flipping the switch on motivation.


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