Precision Parenting Blog

Bribery vs. Reinforcement… What’s the Difference?

pleading mom

I often get the  “Oh my god we have tried reinforcement and it DOES NOT WORK” look from parents coupled with a sigh that suggests “tell me something I DON’T already know”.  And you know what?  Most of these parents have attempted to reinforce their child’s behavior…but they’ve confused it with bribery.  So what’s the real difference?

Reinforcement is a core principal in behavior analysis.  In our field we define reinforcement as something that happens after a behavior has occurred that increases the probability of the specified behavior happening again in the future.  What does that look like?  The removal of a non-preferred task or item or the presentation of a preferred item following the targeted behavior.

A few real world examples:  I tell my daughter to eat her broccoli at dinner, she gets one piece of candy after she eats; my son completes his math assignment, he gets 30 minutes on the iPad.

I often hear people refer to this as bribery and the difference is really all about timing.  When you bribe someone, you either give them something of value before they have completed the desired task or activity (Bobby, here is a cookie, now go do your homework) OR you offer them the valued item once the problem behavior is already set in motion (the goal is to stop homework refusal and you offer the child a cookie mid-tantrum if they will sit and do homework). Bribery seems like a big risk as the outcome could go either way.

Reinforcement on the other hand, is a sure thing.  The definition of reinforcement is that it increases the future probability of the behavior.  When people say reinforcement doesn’t work, they are misunderstanding the procedure.  Bribery may not always work as the person may be less motivated if they have already been given the desired item but by definition, reinforcement works.  Reinforcement has to have value to a person.  If it doesn’t have value, then it’s not a reinforcer and you have to find a different item or activity to use.

So should we bribe our kids?  Heck no.  Should we reinforce their good behavior?  Yes, yes, and did I mention yes?


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