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Externally Reinforcing an Intrinsically Reinforced Behavior

I've been meaning to respond to Anna's mention of a phenomena whereby a trainer externally reinforces an intrinsically reinforcing behavior and the behavior decreases, which appears to violate the laws of learning. I can explain this. (This will be long, sorry.)

This phenomena is the whole basis of Alfie Kohn's popular book "Punished by Rewards." But let's go past the surface level and look at what's really happening...

First, when I was a kid, I was an artist. I loved to do portraits (and I was quite good). At some point people began to ask me to do their portraits and offered to pay me. Before long, I didn't much enjoy it anymore, and I stopped doing them altogether. On the surface it appears that they externally reinforced an intrinsically reinforcing behavior, and it subsequently decreased. But let's look closer...

I've said in prior posts that there are any number of reinforcers and punishers acting on a behavior at any time. It is the sum total of these that determines whether the behavior increases or decreases. You might be giving a cookie for a sit, but if your dog has bad hips, he may actually decrease frequency of the behavior and avoid it.

In the above example, I enjoyed art, and people gave me money. Fabulous! Two big reinforcers. They also added restrictions on media choice, schedule deadlines, removed my freedom to choose only subjects I was interested in, and took away the internal joy I got from giving people a surprise gift. Those were huge aversives for me. Sum total was that art wasn't as much fun anymore.

I quit doing art for the most part because I've found, consistently over the past 20 years, that when I am inspired to do something, people begin to ask me to do things for them. I just hate that.

Now, here's another example where something entirely different occurs...

I love to ski. Say a guy offered me $100 for every run I did. He didn't give me any restrictions or suggestions, just paid me $100 every time I got to the bottom of the hill. What would happen? My skiing would, predictably, increase. I would be skiing both for the love and to get that money.

Over time my interest in skiing would be sated. This happens with pretty much EVERYTHING. It doesn't matter how much you love chocolate; if you eat it constantly, you're going to eventually get tired of it. You reach a point that, if there is no external reinforcer to continue to motivate the behavior, you would naturally stop.

In this example, though, the guy is still paying me $100. I need cash to buy more horses, so I keep skiing. Then one day, he stops paying. Oh. Well, dude, I've got my fill of skiing, so I'm off to do something else. Frequency of this heavily externally reinforced behavior that was previously intrinsically reinforced drops to nil.

The question is... For how long? Well, it depends on how long the external reinforcer kept you going past the satiation point. The further past you go, the more you're adding in a competing punisher. As long as the sum total of the reinforcers and punishers is positive, you're going to keep getting the behavior, but those aversives are leaving behind significant baggage.

I probably wouldn't ski the rest of that season, but I bet I'd be back the next season, my intrinsic motivation as strong as ever. When I was 20 my boyfriend delivered pizza, and we had pizza for dinner every single night for 18 months. Talk about sated. I previously liked the stuff, but it was YEARS before I could eat it again and a full decade before the words, "Let's order pizza" crossed my lips. But now I'm back to eating it as regularly as I eat any other such food.

It also has to be said that externally reinforcing an intrinsically reinforcing behavior in order to decrease the behavior's frequency is FAR from a sure thing. Michael Jordan got an awful lot of money for playing basketball, and in his off time, he still plays. (Not true of all athletes, but many.) If you have a field-bred Lab with a high-drive to retrieve, you can throw birds/balls all day and rather than decrease the drive, you're just going to crank it to neurotic levels.

It's considered the height of success to have a career based on your passion. That is, by definition. external reinforcement for an intrinsically motivating activity. Sometimes it works out great for people. Sometimes people find that what is great as a hobby absolutely sucks as a job. Always though, it sticks within the laws of learning.

Although there are lots of examples of this technique being used to decrease unwanted behavior, I think there are too many factors that affect the success for me to recommend it. And I'm certainly not going to avoid using external rewards (even with intrinsically rewarding behaviors) as Kohn's book recommends. That's nonsense -- and really bad training!!

Melissa Alexander
mca @
copyright 2006 Melissa Alexander


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