STEP THREE: Plan how to immediately reinforce the desired behavior; write a contract.
The simplest way to use rewards is to make a deal with yourself: as soon as you do ________, then you get a reward of________. Suppose you have two things to do in an afternoon--clean up the kitchen and play tennis with a friend. Many people would play tennis first and do the dishes later. A better way would be to do the dishes and reward that with tennis.
There are numerous opportunities to make a contract with ourselves. Indeed, our lives are filled with rewards, so an alert self-manager will arrange for these potential reinforcers to follow some desired behavior, rather than be "wasted" in the sense of not being used for self-improvement. Examples: study before play, positive comments about yourself before eating (to increase self-esteem), dreams about achieving before going to sleep etc.
Most projects to develop new desired behaviors require longer, more complex contracts. Take one desired behavior at a time, figure out how to reward it often, perhaps every time it occurs or after a few minutes. Arrange for small, accessible, effective rewards. Then set an appropriate behavior change for the end of the first week, and select a bigger reward for reaching that goal. Do the same for a certain major improvement in behavior by the end of the month. Such a contract may need to be tailored to your needs for the next 2 or 3 months. Mahoney (1974) has shown that specific behaviors, e.g. calories per day, not pounds lost in a month, should go into a contract, like this:
A contract with myself
As soon as I have done: (what, when, where)
I will immediately reward myself with: (what, when, where)
Goal and reward for day: (what, when, where)
Goal and reward for week: (be specific)
Changes in the goals week by week: (exact)
Goal and reward for month: (be precise)
Contract completed__not completed__and reasons why:
I, the undersigned, do solemnly swear to keep this contract, rewarding myself faithfully and encouraging full compliance with the requirements. Should I fail, I will revise the plan and try again.
Date: _______________ Signed: _________________________
A relationship contract is another example. Where the problems involve a relationship with someone else, try to negotiate a contract specifying the changes each partner is willing to make to please the other one. Both get certain changes they want in the partner; that's the reward for their changing themselves. Example: I'll fix supper early if you will do the dishes before 7:00 P. M. It is important to be specific, reasonable, fair, honest and genuinely concerned about the relationship. Don't try to get a "bargain," just a fair exchange. Azrin, Naster and Jones (1973) had a 95% success rate.
Some couples find contracts too formal and controlling. So, another approach to creating more positive behaviors is for each person to put their wishes in writing in a "wish box." The wishes should be specific, such as "tell me how your work went today," "how about taking a walk," "it would be nice if you picked up your dirty clothes," etc. The partner can at any time grab one of your wish notes and make it come true.
STEP FOUR: Schedule the desired activity and reward, carry out contract, adjust your contract as needed.
Such a contract may need to be tailored to your needs for the next 2 or 3 months.If possible, anticipate and schedule a specific time for the desired behavior and reward. The first few hours or days of a self-help project are especially important; do everything possible to get the new behavior to occur and be rewarded. Getting started is crucial.
If you just can't do it, revise your goals. Take smaller steps. Give bigger rewards. Try again. It may take 15 to 20 small steps to get from where you are to where you want to be. In this way you "shape" your behavior gradually over a period of weeks. As the behavior modifiers say, "If it's hard, you are doing it wrong. Think small! " Examples: gradually increase time spent exercising, studying, being a good listener, etc. Gradually decrease smoking, calories, TV, critical comments, etc. More specifically, the American Cancer Society recommends the reduction of cigarettes by 25% each day with a specific time set to quit within a week. That may be much too fast a pace; smokers may need weeks to quit. Just keep "tinkering" with the contract until it works. Don't give the unwanted behavior any hope that you will eventually give up.
Besides "reward behavior as soon as possible" and "shift from full reinforcement to partial reinforcement," chapter 4 gives some other rules for using reinforcers: (1) don't over-reward or give rewards for very easy tasks, (2) don't give extrinsic rewards for enjoyable tasks and only give rewards a short while for potentially interesting activities, such as studying, (3) don't let your rewards inadvertently reinforce some unwanted behavior (e.g. don't take a break while mad or when daydreaming), (4) avoid using rewards as bribes or enticements, if possible; "surprise" or unexpected rewards work better, and (5) don't neglect either the short-term or the long-term reinforcers of your unwanted behavior. Use both immediate and long-term payoffs to make the wanted behavior stronger and more frequent. Chapter 4 will help you generally understand behavior.
STEP FIVE: Fade out the rewards; develop naturally satisfying responses.
You shouldn't have to keep rewarding every new desired behavior forever. In fact, the behavior, once it is occurring consistently, can be further strengthened by reducing the rewards. See discussion of partial reinforcement in chapter 4. Reduce the extrinsic reinforcement, but increase the intrinsic satisfaction (see method #15), and try to arrange naturally occurring rewards. For instance, if your new behavior, say smoking or eating less, is saving you money, make the saved money very visible and available for special uses. Or, if you are improving your social interaction, recognize the new and/or deeper friendships as being your rewards.
STEP SIX: Make plans to maintain the gains you have achieved.
As noted in chapter 2, most bad habits have a way of gradually growing back. So, once you have achieved an acceptable weight, it pays to monitor your weight closely, at least every week for 3 or 4 months (probably forever). As soon as you gain two pounds, immediately start watching your diet and exercise for the next few days until you lose the two pounds. After several months the desired behavior will become so routine that it will require little attention, except for a moment of attention occasionally to be sure you are still on target.
The simple "behavior-reward" agreements take almost no time at all, just rearranging the order of things in our lives to serve our purposes. More complicated contracts take more time. The first three steps may take 1/2 to 2 hours. The actual reinforcement of every response (or after a few responses) will take detailed scheduling and arrangement of rewards--perhaps 30 minutes every day but more likely five minutes. Later, it takes less time. It will probably be several weeks before the new response is automatic (see "positive addictions" in chapter 4). Habits are hard to predict, some changes are easy, some are unbelievably hard.
Common problems with the method
Many people resist the idea of having their lives mechanically determined by rewards and punishment, even if they are entirely in control of rewarding the desired behavior. Some people just aren't organized enough to count and frequently reward a specific behavior. Nevertheless, the method works well, so if possible, give it a try.
When required to make a self-improvement, reinforcement is the most common method used. I've seen thousands of such projects. There are two really common problems: (1) the self-helper wants to depend on the naturally occurring consequences. Examples: "Better grades will be my reinforcement for studying more" or "Good friendships will be my reward for being more outgoing and social." My response to those proposals is "those rewards have always been available to you for studying or socializing, and they haven't worked yet! More reinforcement is probably needed to get you to change." (2) The reinforcement is not closely associated with the necessary daily behavior. Often the payoff is months later. Examples: "I'll get lots of new clothes when I'm down to a size 8" or "My health will be so much better after I have been on an exercise program." My response is "you need to reinforce every little behavior along the way--every refusal of fatty meat, dessert, a beer, etc. and every 10-minute walk, aerobics exercise, bike ride, game of tennis, etc." The steps above emphasize this point.
When trying to change someone else's behavior, bribes are often confused with positive reinforcement. Bribes are promised payoffs for someone else's future behavior; they are offered a reward before the briber's desired target behavior occurs. If you think about it, the offer of a bribe often actually reinforces unwanted behavior, not the desired actions. Example: a parent says "you can watch the ball game now, if you promise to do your homework right after supper." That is a bribe. Rewards are offered before the homework is done. What does the offer of a bribe actually reinforce? Watching TV! Putting off studying! And making promises! Reinforcement follows the target behavior. If a parent said, "after you do your homework, you can watch an hour of TV," that would not be a bribe; it is an antecedent that describes the conditions under which Junior can get a reinforcement.
Sometimes a person feels that extraneous rewards should not be given for desirable behavior because they aren't deserved. For example, "students should study without being paid for it" or "my spouse should give me attention without any extra reward." Such a viewpoint is understandable but unrealistic. For a while, extrinsic rewards may be necessary until the desired behavior becomes a habit and/or the intrinsic rewards can take over.
B. F. Skinner argued that self-reinforcement requires self-deprivation first (until time to give the reward). This "punishment" could be associated with the desired behavior and, therefore, interfere with self-control rather than enhance it. That seldom seems to occur. People realize why they are delaying their own self-reinforcement. The much more common problem is cheating--taking the reward without doing the behavior.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
Massive research with behavior modification (of others), especially token economies, indicates that reinforcement works well in many situations (not all) but the behavior does not continue long after the rewards are discontinued nor does the rewarded behavior transfer readily to new, non-reinforced situations. Both these limitations make sense as long as people are performing the behavior strictly for a reward decided on and given by someone else. But, what about our own behaviors we want to change or feel we morally need to change? In partial answer to that question, Bellack and Hersen (1977) conclude that self-reinforcement methods are as effective as therapist controlled methods, sometimes better. We can always monitor and reward our own behavior, even if we move into different circumstances.
Much about self-reward is still unclear, however. Some researchers (O'Leary & Dubey, 1979) say self-reinforcement is "one of the most powerful self-control procedures;" others (Brigham, 1982) say there is little evidence of its effectiveness, thus far. Most studies are therapist-controlled and based on short-term external reinforcements. I believe we need to know much more about natural, long-term, covert and intrinsic reinforcement, including cognitive processes and value judgments about our own behavior, before we understand the process of self-reinforcement. We are a long way from understanding why some students love school work and others hate it, why some physicians practice with the poor (instead of making $200,000-a-year), why some people (like Lincoln) learn a lot without good schools, credit, or degrees, why some societies would fight for a controlled economy and others would die for free enterprise, etc. These things don't "just happen." There are reasons--payoffs (real and imagined). But the payoffs are not consciously planned either. When we are all more aware of our reasons and pay offs, the world will be better off.
Positive reinforcement can be used with almost any problem or self-improvement. Usually a new and better behavior is needed to replace an old discontinued behavior. The reinforcement idea is simple; the method is usually easy to use, if changes are made gradually. Not only are there personal benefits from this method but an enlightened society might solve many problems by the wide-spread use of reinforcement. Examples: better parenting by rewarding good child care, less crime by reinforcing moral behavior, better preventative health care by reducing health insurance premiums for losing weight or exercising, increased generosity by rewarding giving, higher productivity by reinforcing industriousness and efficiency, better learning, better marriages, etc. There are no dangers, except (1) believing reinforcement can solve all or no problems and (2) undermining our intrinsic satisfaction by the unnecessary use of extrinsic rewards (see discussion in chapter 4). Kohn (1993) has carefully summarized the down-side of rewards which all self-reinforcers should be aware of.
Kohn suggests several ways to make rewards, when administered by others (teachers, parents, supervisors), less detrimental to intrinsic satisfaction. (1) It is best when rewards do not make people feel controlled by others or manipulated by externally imposed circumstances. (2) It is better to avoid basing our praise of others (or our own self-evaluations) on comparisons of one person with another. Praise others for improvements in their own performance. (3) Whenever the task can be gratifying and rewarding, help the other person shift his/her emphasis from getting extrinsic rewards to experiencing even more intrinsic satisfaction.
Watson, D. and Tharp, R. (1972). Self-directed behavior: Self-modification for personal adjustment, Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.
Daniels, A. C. (1999). Bringing out the best in people. 2nd edition. McGraw-Hill.
Birkedahl, N. (1990). The habit control workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Parents and Children: A Positive Approach to Child Management. A video about the use of rewards; available from Research Press, Champaign, IL.