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Using Reinforcement

The third part of Lindsley's method consists of arranging a contingency. This means using reinforcement or punishment, preferably positive rein­forcement. Green and Morrow (1974) offer the following example of Lindsley's Simplified Precision Model in action.

Jay, a twenty-year-old spastic, re­tarded man urinated in his clothes. A physician had ruled out any organic basis for this behavior. Recently Jay was transferred from a state hospital to a nursing home....

The nursing home director said that Jay must leave if he continued to be enuretic. He agreed, with reserva­tion, to let [a student] try a program to eliminate the wetting behavior.

Conveniently, the nurses had been routinely recording the number of times Jay wet his clothes each day....Jay's daily rate of wets was...plotted on a standardized graph form...

Questionable punishment proce­dures, insisted upon by the nursing home director, were used in the first two modification phases. First, Jay was left wet for thirty minutes follow­ing each wet.

Second, Jay was left in his room for the remainder of the day after he wet once. Throughout both punishment phases the median rate remained unchanged.

These punishments were not the idea of the visiting behavior therapist, and they did not work. Lindsley's step #4 is "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again with revised procedures."

That is a rather strange sounding rule, but it makes sense. In the case of Jay, behavior analysts decided to stop the "questionable punishment procedures" and try positive reinforcement instead.

How does the story of "Jay" illustrate step #4 of Lindsley's procedure?

In a fourth phase, following consul­tation by the student with the junior author, and with the nursing home director's reluctant consent, Jay was given verbal praise and a piece of candy each time he urinated in the toilet.

No punishment was used. Candy and praise were chosen as conse­quences after discussion with the nursing home personnel disclosed what Jay seemed to "go for." The procedure essentially eliminated wetting.

In an "after" phase (after reinforce­ments were discontinued), the rate remained at zero except for one lapse. Presumably, approved toilet behavior and nonwetting were now maintained by natural conse­quences, such as social approval and the comfort of staying dry. (Green & Morrow, 1974, p.47))

Note the "after" phase. Proper inter­vention procedures also include a follow-up to make sure the change is permanent.

Using the Premack Principle

The search for effective reinforcers may require creative thinking. Here is a case history in which the Premack principle was employed with good results.

The Premack principle was discussed earlier. It is the idea that preferred or high frequency behaviors can be used to reinforce less preferred, low frequency behaviors.

How was the Premack principle used to help Burton?

Case #S-13. Burton had been forced out of school because of his bizarre mannerisms, gestures, and posturing. It was generally assumed that he was a severely schizophrenic child, albeit a highly intelligent 13-year-old. He acted belligerently toward his parents and was destructive of home property.

He had been known to punish his parents by such behaviors as pouring buckets of water over his head in the middle of the living room, but his high probability behaviors were to publicly assume a semifetal position, and, alternately, to lock himself alone in his room for long hours.

Reading the homework assigned by his visiting teacher was low prob­ability behavior. Neither he nor his parents rated any objects or people as reinforcing. Initially, therefore, the reinforcement of "retiring to his room" was used, contingent upon completing his homework assignment.

Later, he was returned to a special education classroom. Low prob­ability behavior was classwork, and high probability was escaping alone to a corner of the schoolyard. A contingency was established in which Burton was allowed to leave the class after completion of his assignment.

Later, school attendance became a high probability behavior. At that point, he was allowed to attend school only contingent upon more acceptable behavior at home. (Tharp and Wetzel, 1969, p.47)

Burton was probably autistic, not "severely schizophrenic." This case history comes from a book published in 1969, and autism was little known in the mid-1960s. The idea that retiring to his room or escaping to a corner of the schoolyard was a potent reinforcer makes more sense if you have worked with autistic children.

Natural Social Reinforcers

Probably the most commonly used reinforcer in human and animal affairs is natural social reinforcement. Natural social reinforcement includes all sorts of positive social contact, including (among humans) smiles, hugs, compliments, or simple attention and company.

What are natural social reinforcers?

Common social reinforcers among non-human animals are attention, touching, grooming, and cleaning. For example, small fish sometimes linger in the area of larger fish and clean them by eating parasites and debris from the larger fish.

Losey and Margules (1974) showed that this cleaning symbiosis was reinforcing to the larger fish. In other words, the larger fish would perform a behavior more often when it was followed by contact with the smaller, cleaning fish.

Among humans, social reinforcers can be ruined if they are perceived to be fake or manipulative. A primary rule of social reinforcement is "be sincere."

If a compliment is honest and true, it is a powerful rein­forcer. If it is fakey or perceived as manipulative, it is likely to be a punisher instead.

Perhaps the word flattery is a bad choice. To some people, it implies deceit, as if flattering someone means buttering them up, not really meaning what you say.

The Dale Carnegie course, which teaches "how to win friends and influence people," says flattery is not recommended as a technique for winning friends. However, appreciation is very effective!

How might flattery be punishing but appreciation be reinforcing?

Natural social reinforcement can be useful in professionally planned behavior modification programs. The following example is from Tharp and Wetzel's book Behavior Modification in the Natural Environment (1969).

Case #50. Rena was referred by her parents who were very concerned about her inappropriate behavior at school. Rena, an elementary school student, was known throughout the school for her aggressiveness toward her peers, disruptive classroom behavior, and general defiance. After interviewing her parents, we discovered that Rena was exhibiting, on a somewhat lesser scale, the same behavior at home...

An intervention plan was set up whereby Rena's teacher could inform the parents each day her behavior was satisfactory. Since reinforcers at home were so limited, we had to rely on the positive attention her father could give her when he got home.

They would play simple card games or play in the yard skipping rope, etc. Rena's father had occasionally done this with her, and by making it contingent, this interaction became very meaningful to her. When Rena's behavior was not satisfactory at school, this reinforcement did not occur.

How was natural social reinforcement used with Rena?

The plan took effect rather rapidly, and before long Rena was no problem at school. And, as hoped, her behavior at home also improved.

Secondary Reinforcement Using Tokens

Earlier we discussed the distinction between primary and secondary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers, like food, are unlearned.

Secondary reinforcers are learned or symbolic reinforcers. Money is a secondary reinforcer, because you cannot eat or drink money. However, you can trade money for primary reinforcers such as food and drink.

Secondary reinforcers get their rein­forcing properties from their association with primary reinforcers. Grades are an example. They are worthless in themselves, but they can lead to primary reinforcers like pride, attention, and the fruits of employment after graduation.

How are secondary reinforcers used in token economies?

One well-known application of secondary reinforcement is in token economies. Token economies are like miniature economic systems, using plastic poker chips or similar tokens instead of money.

Originally token economies were used in mental hospitals, but more recently they have been found useful in institutions serving learning-disabled individuals. One student writes:

Everyone has a need and a want for food, sleep, and love. These are just a few examples of what is known as primary reinforcements.

Sometimes reinforcements are earned to buy or attain primary reinforcements. This kind of reinforcement is known as secondary reinforcement.

My sister is mentally retarded, and I can tell when she has been positively reinforced for something she has done, especially at school. She attends Gordon County Training Center.

The teachers there have set up a system based on tokens. If the students at GCTC do their work well or get along with the other students, they receive a certain amount of tokens.

At the end of each week, the students can go to the "store" in the school and spend their tokens on something that they want. My sister always comes home telling us how many tokens she earned and what she spent them on.

She really enjoys getting tokens or any other kind of secondary reinforcement, such as trophies or ribbons, for her achievements. The secondary reinforcements show her that she is doing something good and acceptable in the eyes of others. [Author's files]

Tokens are useful in group settings like a training center for several reasons. (1) the same reinforcer can be given to everybody, and (2) reinforcement can be given immediately after a behavior.

Immediacy of reinforcement is a well-known principle in behavior modification. The sooner reinforcement can be delivered after a response, the better.

Why are tokens useful in institutional settings?

In a treatment facility, candy might be an effective reinforcer with some people...but not everybody. Some people will prefer a different item from the commissary.

A staff member with a pocket full of tokens can reinforce anybody, immediately, no matter what they like to get with the tokens. That makes token economies especially useful in institutional settings.


Green, J. & Morrow, W. (1974). Precision social work. In E. Thomas (Ed.) Behavior modification procedure: A sourcebook. Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Company.

Losey, G. S. & Margules, L. (1974) Cleaning Symbiosis Provides a Positive Reinforcer for Fish. Science, 184, 179-180.

Tharp, R. G., & Wetzel, R. J. (1969). Behavior Modification in the Natural Environment. New York: Academic Press.

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