Motivation by Reward and Consequence – Behaviourism

Motivation is one of the most important aspects of learning and as a result has featured in many previous blogs. In its simplest form motivation can be defined as something that you want; you want to get fit or you want to pass the exam, and as a result that want directs your behaviour. For example, if I want to pass the exam, a good behaviour would be to attempt 5 more questions.

But do we ever really know what is motivating someone? We could ask Tom Dean, the gold medal winner in the 200-meter freestyle at this year’s Tokyo Olympics. What motivated him to train even harder after he contracted Covid for a second time? I’m sure he would give us an answer, the problem is it could well be something he has constructed to explain it to himself rather than the real reason.

Maybe we should think less of the cognitive reasoning behind motivation and consider only the actions of a motivated person? It’s likely Tom had a few early mornings and went through some pretty painful training sessions in order to get fit for the games, but it could be that his ability to do this is more a consequence of conditioning rather than his desire for a gold medal. There is also the question as to why a gold medal is motivational, after all its not even gold, they are 92.5% silver. Interestingly the Tokyo medals include recycled metal from electrical devises. Maybe its because he associates it with success and or pride, something that he has been conditioned to over many years.

Behaviourism
Behaviourism, is a theory of learning which states that all behaviours are learned through interaction with the environment by a process called conditioning. The implication is that your behaviour is simply the response to a stimulus, a cause and effect.

The environment shapes people’s actions. B.F. Skinner

Its highly likely you will have experienced and even been involved in motivating someone in this way. For example, were you ever put on the naughty step as a child or told your dog to sit and when he does, reward him? These are examples of how changing the environment results in a different behaviour. The dog is motivated to sit not because it’s a lifelong ambition but because he wants the reward. Tom Dean may well have got up early to go training but that might have more to do with the conditioning resulting from his alarm going off, than a burning desire to get out of bed.

It is effectively motivation as a result of reward and consequence, if you do something you get something.

Classical conditioning – association
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, discovered that dogs could “learn” to salivate at the sound of a bell that rang before they were fed. He called this classical conditioning, the dog associating the bell with food. These types of associations can be the reason people are afraid of spiders or chewing gum, yes, it’s real, Oprah Winfrey is a sufferer. It also explains why having a designated study area can help you feel more like studying, you associate it with getting work done. Here are a few more examples, your smart phone bleeps and you pick it up, celebrities are used to associate a product with glamour, Christmas music makes you feel Christmassy and an exam hall brings on exam anxiety.

Operant conditioning – reinforcement
In contrast to classical conditioning, operant conditioning encourages or discourages a specific behaviour using reinforcement. The argument being that a good behaviour should be reinforced by a repeated reward or a bad behaviour stopped by a repeated punishment. The person who developed this type of conditioning is B.F. Skinner, who famously used pigeons in what became known as “Skinner boxes”.

There are four types of reinforcement

  • Positive reinforcement – The behaviour is strengthened by adding something, a reward (praise/treats/prizes) which leads to repetition of the desired behaviour e.g. “Well done, Beth, that was a great question”. Here praise is added to encourage students to ask questions.
  • Negative reinforcement – The removal of something to increase the response e.g. “I can’t study because, everyone is shouting”. The shouting stops which encourages the behaviour of studying.
  • Punishment – The opposite of reinforcement, it adds something that will reduce or eliminate the response. e.g. “that’s probably the worse answer I have ever heard Beth, were you listening at all”. Here humiliation is added that will reduce the likelihood of students asking questions.
  • Negative punishment (Extinction) – This involves removing or taking something away e.g. “You can have your mobile phone back when you have done your homework”. In this situation removing access to the mobile phone results in the homework being completed.

A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment. B.F. Skinner

Limitations
Skinner remained convinced anything could be taught with operant conditioning and went on to invent a teaching machine using the principles of reinforcement. It required students to fill in the blank, if the answer was correct, they were rewarded if incorrect they had to study the correct answer again to learn why they were wrong.

Give me a child and I’ll shape him into anything. B.F. Skinner

However, there are many limitations, the motivation is not always permanent, it’s too basic to teach complex concepts, punishment can lead to a reinforcement of the undesirable behaviour and its possible the person is just pretending.

Operant conditioning is still a hugely influential in the modern world, for example have you ever watched someone play a fruit machine, the required behaviour rewarded to extract more money. What about online gaming where points and leader boards provide rewards in terms of status and prizes.
Then then there are the ideas surrounding behavioural economics popularised by Nudge theory which suggest that you can influence the likelihood that one option is chosen over another by changing the environment.

And finally, have ever seen how the military train, check out this video.

So next time you think you are making a decision of your own free will, maybe you’re just responding to an external stimulus!

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