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Blog

Reinforcers vs. Rewards

Kerri Milyko, Ph.D. BCBA

We talk about reinforcers quite frequently on our blog; but do you know exactly what it is?  Further, what differentiates reinforcers from rewards?  Today, we are going to clearly separate the two notions with some real world examples so that you can utilize reinforcement in your home and classroom and not just rewards.

The casual observer may not notice any difference between reinforcers and rewards.  Someone does something and they get something they like after the behavior occurs.  This is true for both reinforcers and rewards. 

The fundamental difference, however, lies in what happens after that “good thing” is delivered.  If it makes no impact on future behavior, then it is a reward.  If it increases the likelihood that behavior will occur again in the future, thus increasing its frequency, you utilized reinforcement.

One chore I despise is unloading the dishwasher.  I've felt this way for as long as I can remember.  Being a behavior analyst, I thought I’d be slick and utilize some reinforcement at home so that I wouldn’t have to perform this chore I loathe.  One day, I caught my husband unloading the dishwasher and I piled on the praise: “This is so great!  Thank you so much for helping.  You are such a good husband.”  I even gave him a big smooch when he was done with the chore. 

The two potential reinforcers or rewards that I delivered in the above scenario were praise statements and a kiss.  If the praise and kiss functioned as reinfocers, my husband will unload the dishwasher more frequently, maybe without me asking.  If they were just rewards for the behavior, I would still have to continually ask him to do the chore and it would occur at the same frequency prior to the reward. 

You can also identify reinforcers by what happens when they are removed from a situation.  If a reward is removed, the behavior will not change.  For example, if I no longer received the “participation ribbon” for the swim team as a child, I would have continued to swim on the team.  The ribbon did not motivate me to participate; nor did it have an effect on how much effort I put towards practicing.  It was merely a reward.

However, if you went to work one day and a paycheck was handed to everyone but you, I assume after a period of time (and after a bunch of strongly-worded emails) you would find another job.  The paycheck reinforced your behavior of going to work and potentially how well you performed your job.  Therefore, the money functioned as a reinforcer.

Using rewards is nice.  You are a generous person if you provide rewards.  If your goal is to change behavior, however, then the use of rewards is futile.  You need to find something that is powerful and strong enough to change behavior: a reinforcer.  If behavior is not affected by the consequence of the student receiving the “good item”, then it is not a reinforcer.  Plain and simple.