In Part I of this series on changing behaviours, I outlined a few strategies on how to reduce unwanted behaviours. In Part II, I will focus on how to increase acceleration behaviours. With acceleration behaviours, the key is the desire to increase the frequency of behaviours we deem to be adaptive and important (e.g. exercising, finishing homework, eating vegetables, etc.).
As with deceleration behaviours, when trying to increase acceleration behaviours we need to use effective strategies, otherwise we will not achieve the results we want. Recall: good intentions without appropriate contingencies or plans will not translate into action or success.
Reinforcing Behaviours 101
When we reinforce behaviour, we strengthen the chances of that behaviour occurring again in the future. Reinforcement occurs when the consequences of behaviour (which are the reinforcers) increase the likelihood that the person will repeat the behaviour. Reinforcement can be broken down into positive and negative reinforcement.
Positive reinforcement occurs when a typically positive event is added as a consequence of a person performing the behaviour. For example, teachers will give students high marks for good performances, coaches will give players more playing time when they are helping the team win, and parents will use motivational and encouraging comments like, “Good job honey!” or “Keep it up son!”
Negative reinforcement occurs when a typically unpleasant event is removed as a consequence of a person performing a specific behaviour. For example, we take medication anytime we feel pain or sickness because the behaviour of taking medication is reinforced by the relief of pain. It is important to note that whether positive or negative, reinforcement will always lead to acceleration or strengthening of behaviour.
Types of Positive Reinforcers
Focusing specifically on positive reinforcers, here are a few different types of positive reinforcers summarized by Spiegler and Guevermont (2003) you can implement to increase acceleration behaviours:
Tangible reinforcers refer to material objects such as food, clothes, jewelry, toys, etc.
Social reinforcers are comprised of attention, praise, affirmation, validation, positive feedback and acknowledgment from others. Social reinforcers can be spoken (e.g. “Thank you!”), physical (e.g. a hug or a pat on the back), written or typed (e.g. a thank you email) and through gestures (e.g. a smile).
There are four advantages to social reinforcers: First, they are easy to do; second, social reinforcers do not cost anything; third, you can give social reinforcers immediately after the target behaviour has been performed (the sooner we reinforce a specific behaviour, the more effective the reinforcer becomes) and; fourth, social reinforcers are natural reinforcers meaning that they are consequences people receive as a regular part of their day.
Token reinforcers are symbolic items that hold value because of what they can be exchanged for, with the most obvious example being money. Other examples include teachers providing stickers to students for engaging in specific target behaviours. Once students accumulate enough stickers they are given an award. The sticker acts as a reinforcer to make students pay attention in class, attain academic goals and standards, or engage in extra-curricular activities.
Implementing the Premack Principle
One key aspect of acceleration target behaviours is that they are low-probability behaviours, hence our desire to want to increase them. Understanding this, David Premack discovered that an effective way to increase the frequency of low-probability behaviours is to use high-probability behaviours as reinforcers. These high-probability behaviours do not have to be pleasurable, rather the only criterion is that they should not be aversive. Also, it is important that the high-probability behaviours do not occur too often because they can have the reverse effect of not motivating us to want to engage in the low-probability activity. This bears to mind the old adage: too much of a good thing can be bad.
So how do we effectively apply the Premack Principle?
First, take a behaviour that you “should” be doing at least once per day but you seldom do. Examples can include exercising, brushing your teeth after meals, making your bed in the morning, etc. For one week, keep a record of how many times you engage in this low-probability behaviour. This will serve as your baseline.
Second, create a list of standard high-probability behaviours you perform at least once a day without fail. Examples can include shaving, checking e-mails, putting on make-up, eating breakfast – basically any routine behaviour. As you can see, not all of these have to be enjoyable. The next step involves choosing one of the high-probability behaviours as a reinforcer. It is crucial that the high-probability behaviour occurs after the low-probability behaviour. For example, if making your bed is your low-probability behaviour, you can reinforce it with a high-probability behaviour you do once you leave your house like going to Starbucks for coffee. All of you coffee addicts, can you imagine missing your morning coffee. Not pleasant, right?
Once you have recorded your baseline activity for a week, implement the Premack Principle as follows:
Engage in the high-probability behaviour only after you have performed the low-probability behaviour.
Keep recording the number of times you perform the low-probability behaviour each day. Over time, and with continued persistence, you will begin to see a gradual increase in the frequency of the low-probability behaviour.
In closing, increasing acceleration behaviours is challenging; it requires us to transform low-probability behaviours into high-probability behaviours by identifying reinforcers that can strengthen behaviours. The use of positive reinforcers and the Premack Principle are two effective strategies, that if properly implemented can help you achieve this goal.