How to get more of the behaviours you want through reinforcement

Posted on September 01, 2023

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I wrote some time back* about how my partner, Michelle, is smart: she frequently tells me the coffee I make is wonderful, and because of that, I continue to want to make it for her. If she told me it tasted crap, I’d tell her to make it herself, or if she didn’t say anything, I’d be less inclined to be consistent and ensure it was the best I could do.

Last week, I stayed at the colourful and playfully designed QT Hotel in Surfers Paradise - the venue where I was a guest speaker. The green door tag promoted that if I left it on the handle, the cleaner wouldn’t arrive, and I’d be given $10 off my daily bill. I didn’t need the discount, but as my room was clean and tidy and I didn’t want anyone interrupting me, I thought I would follow the suggestion.

The next day, a green thank you card was slipped under the door with the $10 discount applied. The “thank you” with a small incentivisation, followed soon after the desired action, reinforced (strengthened) the behaviour the hotel sought, which, in turn, motivated me to continue doing so for the duration of my stay.

Here’s the thing…I knew about this incentive when I checked in to the hotel and the total amount I would save when I checked out, but that was days away, and it didn’t motivate me to act. What inspired the repeated behaviour was the type ofand immediacy of, the reinforcement.

This situation caused me to reflect on (as one example) the annual bonus scheme companies use as a motivational tool, but I have never heard an employee cite this as a motivator. It may keep them around for the year, but it seems business as usual for the 364 days between profit distribution. If the bonus were used as a reinforcer to increase motivation, it would potentially need to be distributed more frequently. Psychologist/behaviourist, B.F. Skinner noted similar when he said, “Reinforcing a man with fifty dollars at one time may not be so effective as reinforcing him with five dollars at ten different times during the same period.”**

Along with the frequency of reinforcement, it’s also worth considering the type of reinforcement: what inspires one person to act may not have the same effect on another. Whether the reinforcers are financial***, a thank you card, or the many other forms they take, it’s important to experiment and observe the resulting actions.

I think Michelle and the hotel management are smart. They understand that when you want a specific action repeated, find some way of meaningfully and frequently reinforcing it.


*This previous post was called One thing I’ve learned from living with a psychologist. You can read it here or watch it here.

**Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science & human behavior. Free Press. p 101.

***Financial rewards won’t motivate everyone, and research has shown that they can also negatively impact one’s inherent enjoyment of their work.

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