Why do people behave the way they do???

In my last blog I described the 3 basic principles that underlie human behaviour; the responses a behaviour receives that influence the likelihood of that behaviour occurring again in future.

It was a ‘wordy’ one wasn’t it?! Let’s break these principles down one by one and look at them a bit closer.


If you are in my ‘Parenting With Science’ face book group then you’ll have seen this word crop up A LOT.

People often mistake reinforcement as having the same meaning as ‘reward’.  BUT the technical definition of reinforcement is:

….when a behavior is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus that increases the future frequency of the behavior” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Reinforcers follow a behaviour, in that they come AFTER a behaviour has occurred and by definition makes that specific behaviour more likely occur again under similar circumstances.

As parents we can use this principle to increase those behaviours we want to see more of e.g. waiting nicely, playing nicely, asking nicely, listening and responding etc.

For example:

Antecedent = I’m talking on the phone but my child wants my attention

Behaviour = Child says ‘Excuse me please’

Consequence = I respond to my child by giving them attention.

What do you think will happen to future instances of saying ‘excuse me’ under similar conditions?

It will increase! Reinforcement INCREASES behaviour.

This is an example of POSITIVE reinforcement.

Now, here’s another spanner to add to the works – in ABA land, the words positive and negative mean the addition or removal of a stimulus, not ‘good’ Vs ‘bad’….I know, confusing right?!

So, when I say ‘positive reinforcement’ what I mean is that I am adding something the child wants into their environment e.g. I’m giving the attention or access to a tangible. In other words: I’m giving access to ‘the good stuff’.

So, what the heck does negative reinforcement mean?!

Negative reinforcement is:

…the removal of an aversive stimulus as a consequence of a response, which, in turn, increases the probability of that response…..

I know, I know, but stick with me here!

You would remove something your child doesn’t like which would in turn increase the likelihood of the child engaging in that behaviour again.

For example;

Antecedent: I ask my kids to do their homework

Behaviour: kids start moaning/protesting

Consequence: I can’t face battling with them so I say “ok, we’ll do it tomorrow then”

What do you think will happen to future instances of moaning/protesting under similar conditions?

It will increase! Remember – reinforcement (whether it’s positive OR negative) INCREASES behaviour.

If you are allowing your child to escape/avoid something they don’t like (such as the homework example) you are ‘negatively reinforcing’ your child’s behaviour. In other words you are allowing them to escape.

However, there are useful instances of when to use negative reinforcement, for example, you might want to teach your child to appropriately ask for a break rather than engaging in problem behaviour to avoid a demand/task.

To do this you would set up situations to contrive motivation for escape and when you notice those pre-cursor behaviours you would swiftly prompt them to as for a break. When they respond to your prompt you would allow them to have a break by removing the demand placed on them thereby using the principle of negative reinforcement.

Do you see what I mean? This isn’t a ‘bad’ principle to use, it’s actually helpful to use in the right contexts.

Take home points about using reinforcement:

  • Provided immediately following the desired behaviour
  • Results in an increase in the desired behaviour

You might be thinking…what could serve as positive reinforcers for my child??

This is when you need to get your detective hat on and observe your child – see what they like doing in their free time, what do they play with?

Examples of things that have served as reinforcers for my own kids/clients are:

  • Ipad
  • TV
  • Social praise
  • Pocket money
  • Slinky
  • Pin art
  • Spinners
  • Squidgy toys
  • Massage
  • Applauding
  • Bubbles
  • sweeties
  • Computer games
  • Water play

The list could go on!


Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed., pp 560-567). Columbus: Pearson

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