What About This? By Wayne William Cipriano

By Wayne William Cipriano

Even if you have never heard of Reinforcement Theory (RT), you know what it is and probably exercise it every day. As a Psychological theory, RT states that any behavior paired with a pleasant experience has a higher probability of being rewarded. 

Your mom asks you to clean your room. You, out of gratitude for all the things she does for you around the house, or out of fear of what your dad will do if he finds out you didn’t, clean your room. Afterward,  your mom says, “Thank you for cleaning your room, here’s a thousand dollars in cash to spend as you wish.” 

The next time your Mom asks you to clean your room, what do you think you will do? That’s RT. And it works, doesn’t it?

Whenever a psychology class is first introduced to Reinforcement Theory, there is often a group of students therein who will try some RT on their professor. 

For example, they may decide amongst themselves to smile and bob their heads “appreciatively” up and down every time the professor looks at a certain student (Picking a good-looking student introduces another variable into the system, a less attractive student may more effectively test the theory). The reinforcement usually works such that the student selected receives more, frequently significantly more looks from the prof than other students. The lesson proposed is that even persons familiar with RT can have their behavior shaped by it – even when they know it is happening. 

To be completely up front, most psychology profs, having taught several freshman classes, often detect such reinforcing as it occurs and to cement the lesson, react as the class hopes they will. Yes, a set of potentially confounding variables has been introduced, but the looking behavior did increase, didn’t it? All sorts of behaviors are being shaped. 

I mention all this because I have noticed of late, during our self-induced sequester during Covid-19, that pieces of fudge will turn up in places which Rosalie wishes me to spend more time. At my desk, at my workbench, at my typewriter. I can pretty much figure out what her plans for me are today by noticing where the fudge shows up. 

I am very familiar with Reinforcement Theory and behavior shaping, and as a fudge gourmand, I am very glad Rosalie shares that familiarity with me. I just hope I don’t find a series of cellophane-wrapped fudge pieces leading to some real work.

Will I fly in the face of Reinforcement Theory and resist behavior shaping or will I comply? We all know the answer to that question, don’t we?