Principles of Reinforcement and How They Work in Applied Behavior Analysis

By: Brighid O’Malley

boy-doing-homeworkIn behavior analysis, behavior occurs to gain access to four main principles of reinforcement.  The first main principle is access to attention or social reinforcement.  Social reinforcement can be classified as attention, physical proximity, physical contact, and praise.  (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007)  This type of reinforcement can be a very powerful tool for changing or maintaining a behavior.  This type of reinforcement can be from both adults, as well, as children, even familiar individuals, as well as, strangers.

The second principle of reinforcement is escape.  Often referred to as escape from tasks or demands, a person seeks this form of reinforcement to get out of an event that is aversive to them.

The third principle is that of object.  Object reinforcement can be classified as access to preferred tangible items such as toys, stickers, or personal materials, as well as, access to edible objects such as candy, chips, or other preferred foods.  This type of reinforcement is very powerful and can be faded in order to promote generalization; however, this type of reinforcement can also cause reinforcement dependency.

The last principle is that of sensory reinforcement.  This type of reinforcement refers to tactile, vibrations, flashing lights, smells, and sounds, in order to provide stimulation of the senses.  (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007)  This can also be a very effective form of reinforcement especially for children with autism.

When using the principles of reinforcement one must be careful to use them appropriately or else one can see the wrong behavior change.  For example, John dislikes his schoolwork and frequently tantrums when he is told to work.  His father decided to reinforce him with ice cream for completing his homework.  Whenever he tantrums his father walks away and gives John a five-minute break.  Now, John engages in a tantrum every time his father walks back up to him and is not accessing any ice cream.  The problem with this scenario is that John is seeking escape as reinforcement.  His father is also allowing him to escape, which is increasing his frequency of tantrums.  John’s father attempted to change the behavior by offering him an edible object, however, the motivation for the object was not powerful enough to change the behavior.  Instead John’s father should not let him receive a break until he has worked for a period of time.  By providing him frequent short breaks for actually working he will increase his work and decrease his tantrums.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis, 2nd edition. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co..