Negative reinforcement; escape and avoidance learning.
It is relieving--rewarding--to get away from anything unpleasant: a hostile person, a hard job, paying a fine, punishment, self-criticism, etc. Therefore, any action by you that enables you to escape pain or discomfort is reinforced by the relief you experience. This is a very important concept. You can't understand human behavior and emotions without this notion.
Chapter 4 gives several examples of negative reinforcement. People have difficulty grasping the idea. Consider this example: suppose you try to quiet a crying child by offering it a piece of candy and the child responds in a rage by knocking the candy out of your hand with a stick. Your approach to the problem has been punished by the child; you won't try that again. Then, suppose you get mad and scream angrily at the child, and the child immediately becomes quiet and compliant. Your screaming has just been negatively reinforced (you would say "rewarded," i.e. the unpleasant crying stopped) and you have become a little more likely to get mad and yell when faced with a crying child in the future (unless, of course, you become more aware of what is happening to you and over-ride this tendency with your brain). This child getting quiet has had the same effect on your behavior as if the child had given you a delicious candy bar for getting mad and yelling.
In short, positive reinforcement (being rewarded) and negative reinforcement (getting rid of something unpleasant) influence the immediately preceding behavior the same way; they both strengthen it. Yet, when we are in the actual circumstances, we see the situations very differently. We humans seem to have much more difficulty recognizing that negative reinforcement is shaping, modifying, manipulating our behavior and emotions than in seeing that money, friendship, love, sex and M & M's influence us powerfully. We must become more aware.
Punishment is also frequently confused with negative reinforcement, partly because of the negative label but primarily because the threat of some punishment is often the cause of the stress that is avoided or escaped (producing the relief). Suppose a teenager is grounded, i.e. "punished," for not cleaning his room. And, suppose he now starts cleaning his room every week. Somehow a cleaning response was reinforced. How? The parent used negative reinforcement: the threat of further punishment was created and that threat could be escaped by cleaning the room. (Or, the tendency to procrastinate or rebel was punished and lost strength.) Cleaning his room is called an "escape response" because the threat of punishment is turned off. An "avoidance response" is when the teenager cleans his room even before being threatened with punishment; his cleaning avoids punishment and the threat of it, thereby reducing his stress. Reinforcement (+ or -) is the opposite of punishment but the same as escape from anything unpleasant.
An easy way of telling the difference between punishment and negative reinforcement is to consider the effects. If the target behavior declines rapidly, it was probably punished; if the target behavior increases, it was surely reinforced. Fining yourself for eating more than 1200 calories per day is punishment; threatening to fine yourself for not studying two hours per day is negative reinforcement if it results in studying two hours a day or more. Often, punishment produces immediate changes (escape) whereas negative reinforcement (avoidance) takes time (Miller, 1980).
Finally, don't be confused by negative reinforcement being involved in producing both desired and unwanted behaviors. We learn to avoid punishment by being good (the clean room miracle mentioned above) and we often acquire unwanted behaviors (fears, a hot temper, submissiveness, shyness, and bad habits, like drinking) because they help us escape unpleasant situations.
There are only a few self-help methods based on negative reinforcement or avoidance and escape. It is vitally important that you understand negative reinforcement so you can understand yourself. This learning principle is referred to many times in previous chapters, especially in chapter 4.
- To appropriately avoid, escape or handle an unpleasant situation, person, thought, feeling, possible punishment or unwanted consequence. (And to recognize your harmful ways of avoiding and escaping so you can develop better ways.)
- To use the escape or avoidance of something unpleasant (either naturally existing or intentionally created) as a reinforcer of a desired behavior.
STEP ONE: Identify the unpleasant experience you want to turn off and/or the desired behavior you want to strengthen.
The unpleasantness may come from any source: the physical environment (heat, cold, pain, hunger needs), interpersonal relationships (anger, excessive demands, boredom), or internal thoughts or feelings (self-criticism, stress, dependency). Be clear in your mind what you want to avoid.
As in method #16, you should also have a specific desired behavior in mind if you want to use negative reinforcement to strengthen it. Remember reinforcement (negative or positive) primarily strengthens immediately preceding responses.
STEP TWO: Identify existing unwanted behaviors that may be maintained by negative reinforcement; plan a better way to handle the situation.
You may not need this step. But if you have a fear reinforced by avoiding something, anger strengthened by getting your way, passivity based on avoiding confrontations, self-putdowns that reduce the criticism of others, procrastination that avoids stress and immediate challenges but neglects the future, etc., then you need to recognize what is going on. Usually these unwanted behaviors are effective in reducing the immediate stress but destructive in terms of your long-range life goals.
You need to achieve the immediate relief with new, healthier behaviors that will also facilitate your life goals. This new behavior will have to be learned, reinforced, practiced, and perfected. Examples: Learn to face a fear rather than avoid it, learn to be assertive instead of aggressive or passive, learn to be self-accepting in spite of criticism, learn to be organized and prompt instead of putting things off, etc. (See 3 in the next step).
STEP THREE: Arrange for the desired behavior to reduce some unpleasant experience.
All of these self-help methods involve getting away from an actual or potentially unpleasant situation. In some methods you create the unpleasantness yourself, in others the unpleasantness exists without effort on your part. Here are some examples:
- Learn how to tactfully and effectively avoid or escape something unpleasant (see method #1 and chapter 8). Examples: Suppose you have a very talkative friend, try simply saying, "I really must go." The relief reinforces your assertiveness. Like a defensive driver, you can anticipate conversational pitfalls and avoid topics that lead to fruitless heated arguments or embarrassment. (Of course, carried to an extreme you may become a wimp...or a statesperson.)
- Set up on-going unpleasant conditions which you can escape by doing the desired behavior. Examples: A dieter or smoker or procrastinator can become self-demanding and repeatedly recite to yourself the disadvantages of the bad habit, then escape the self-criticism by being "good." Someone else could nag you (at your request).
- Learn skills and methods of reducing unpleasant emotions that bother us, such as fear, guilt, chronic stress, self-criticism, etc. Examples: Anxiety about our work can often be reduced by doing extra work and preparing better. Gradually confronting and challenging your shyness rather than avoiding social interaction can reduce the discomfort as well as alter the course of your life. See chapters 5 to 9 for more information.
- Make a rule that something bad will happen if the desired behavior doesn't occur as you want it to. Examples: "If I don't do the dishes, I pay $2.00" or "If I swear, I give $5.00 extra to the church (or to the KKK)" or "If I eat dessert, I have to run 2 miles." If you can't impose the rules on yourself, ask your friends for help: e.g. if you tend to be late, ask friends to get mad at you and only wait 5 minutes. If you fail to do your clearly-defined share of the "dirty work," arrange to have friends give away your favorite clothes or records.
- Becoming more aware of the feelings of others may provide the motivation you need to do the desired behavior. Suppose your boy/girlfriend told you that he/she is bothered by your being a "C" student (or really dislikes a habit of yours), wouldn't that be motivating? You now have a chance to make reasonable self-improvements and avoid stress between you.
STEP FOUR: Try out your new plan and see how it works.
This may involve a contract (as in the last method), such as agreeing to try a new way to get out of a disagreeable situation, setting a fine for certain actions, increasing self-dissatisfaction that can be avoided, etc. Try to arrange the relief from the unpleasant stimulus immediately following the desired behavior.
Devising and practicing a better avoidance or escape mechanism may take an hour or two. As with positive reinforcement, it may take a few minutes every day for several weeks to carry out a contract to reinforce certain behaviors in this way.
Common problems with the method
Breaking the rules is the most common--"I just sort of forgot." Also, many people realize that they might break the rule so they avoid making an agreement that has serious consequences. When this happens, ask if you are serious about changing. Very few people will raise their own level of dissatisfaction; the rationalizations and excuses we use pay off so highly. But if you are serious about changing, you will probably want to set serious penalties for failing to do what you want to do.
Effectiveness, advantages and dangers
There is no doubt that threats work in many situations: we drive at 65 mph, we pay more taxes than we would without penalties for cheating, students study more when threatened with low grades, we are intimidated by pushy, aggressive people, etc. Sometimes we rebel against threats, or we disregard threats because we are so emotional (for example in murder cases). But, many "rules" and fines or mildly critical reminders influence our behavior easily and very effectively (Miller, 1980).
Research with alcoholism and homosexuality has had limited success with avoidance and escape training (Bellack and Hersen, 1977). It is set up so that drinking or unwanted sexual behaviors lead to nausea or electric shock. The nausea and shock can be avoided by staying sober and avoiding certain sexual thoughts or actions. The drop-out-of-therapy rate is high with these problems using threats of physical punishment, so using similar self-help methods are dubious in these cases too. However, the threat of mild self-administered shock associated with taking out a cigarette has been fairly effective.
The techniques for avoiding an unpleasant situation, e.g. change of environment or being assertive, have a good rate of success. The efficacy of creating your own stressful situation and then lowering the stress by being "good" is not well researched, although it is a common procedure in diet, exercise, and study programs. We humans are remarkably adept at disregarding the harmful long range consequences of over-eating, taking it easy, and putting off studying. Stressful self-confrontation may be the best solution to getting ourselves going.
These negative reinforcement methods can be fairly simple, especially getting out of bad situations and making up threatening rules. But, it is not easy to recognize the payoffs for unwanted behaviors (see method #9) and change those situations. Creating your own stress may also be hard and should be done with caution. I suspect that people who are already prone to be overly critical of themselves are attracted to self-criticism as a self-help method (which contributes to their problem, not to the solution).
There may be some risks associated with these methods: if you build the stress (to be avoided in order to be reinforced), you may then avoid the threatening situation altogether when it is to your advantage to stick it out. For example, if you make studying much more important (by emphasizing the long-range consequences), the additional stress may result in your partying and drinking more (to forget the future), instead of studying more. So be sure only desired behavior is being strengthened by the avoidance of unpleasantness. Furthermore, creating more stress might be psychologically and physiologically unhealthy.
Miller, L. K. (1980). Principles of everyday behavior analysis (2nd ed.), Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.