Erin Lombard
Expert Name: Erin Lombard
Expert Title: Erin Lombard
Company Name:  Step by Step Academy
Company URL: www.stepbystepacademy.org
Short Bio: Erin Lombard is a Board Certified Bahavior Analyst and a certified Special Education educator currently teaching graduate level Positive Bahavior Support courses at Northern Arizona University. She holds an undergraduate degree in Child and Adolescent Studies and a master’s degree in Special Education obtained in California State University and University of North Texas respectively. She is currently working on her Ph.D. in Psychology at Capella University.

Rewards vs. Reinforcement

While leisurely reading the other day, my eye began to twitch, as I read the words “behaviorists use rewards to change behavior”. Now, I understand that rewards are commonplace in the field of behavior analysis as a reinforcement tool, but this serves a very specific purpose. The context of the writing implied that these “rewards” only provide a disservice as internal motivation always supersedes external motivation.  In general, rewards and reinforcement appear to be very misunderstood. 

A reinforcer is an event that occurs after a behavior, and due to the reinforcer the behavior is likely to occur again in the future. Basically, if something is expected or enjoyed after engaging in a behavior, one is likely to do the behavior again. This is not necessarily a reward. Consider the following examples:

When you knock on the door to your neighbor’s house, no one comes to the door. However, when you ring the doorbell, your friend answers the door. You are likely going to only ring the doorbell in the future. The friend did not reward you, just simply reinforced your behavior.

A child turns the pages of a book and the consequence is new pictures appear. The child is likely to turn pages of a book in the future, not because of a reward, but because seeing the pictures reinforces the behavior of turning pages.

Therefore, yes, internal motivation is preferable as behaviors are likely to be maintained in the long term when reinforcement occurs naturally. However, what can one do when reinforcement is occurring naturally for an undesirable behavior? This is when rewards make great reinforcers as these reinforcers can compete with internal or automatic consequences. Consider this example:

A child spins the wheels of a car because it is so fun to do! His parents prompt (help) him to push the car around and give him praise and a raisin for pushing the car instead of spinning wheels.

In this example, the parents needed something that would be more reinforcing than the result of spinning the wheels. Hopefully, eventually the pushing of the car around while making noises will be even more reinforcing and the external reinforcers (praise and raisin) can be faded away.

Rewards definitely have a place in behavior modification, but rewards are definitely not equivalent to reinforcement!