Reinforcement vs. Bribery: Is There a Difference?

We've already talked all about reinforcement, so we know how to define it and when to use it. But is it really that much different than bribery? In fact, yes. Yes it is.

I've had almost every parent and staff member I've ever work with confuse the two and interchange them in conversation. I've also had parents and staff tell me that "reinforcement doesn't work" and that they "don't want to bribe" their learner. These are concerning statements to me as a BCBA, as it is telling me they don't truly grasp reinforcement and how it differs from bribery. Let's fix that today.  
Don't forget about the FREEBIE below!

First, let's review reinforcement:

Reinforcement is the process in which specific behavior is followed by a consequence (not a bad thing, just the outcome of something, in this case) that results in that same behavior increasing in the future. Essentially, anything that occurs after a behavior occurs and it increases that behavior in the future, it's considering reinforcing for that behavior. For example, if I open an email from TPT containing new products from my favorite sellers, and there are a few products I download, the likelihood, or future frequency of my opening those emails in the future increases. Whenever I get an email from TPT, I will continue to open them (so long as it continues to be reinforcing to do so).


Okay, now that we understand reinforcement, let's look at the definition of bribery:

Bribery is the act of providing something with the intention of influencing the recipient in someway that is favorable to the party providing the bribe. Bribery is typically considered to be illegal or dishonest or unethical.


The main distinctions I take away are that bribes are typically dishonest or corrupt in nature, and more to the point of learner's behavior, is not meant to increase the learner's behavior, but act in favor of the person giving the bribe in the first place.

Sure, we as teachers, parents, and caregivers find changing our learner's behavior reinforcing as well, so by default, many times the future frequency of our learner's behavior that has been increased makes our lives easier. That does not mean that by reinforcing our learner's we are bribing them, because the learner comes first when we are considering reinforcement. When people are bribing, they themselves come first.

Obviously there are times in which you will use or have used a bribe strictly for your own gain. For example, your kid is being annoying and crying and whining nonstop because you didn't get them a toy. You are not interested in increasing the future frequency of calm behavior; you are simply interested in making the tantrum stop. So, you say "if you stop crying I'll get you an ice cream." The intent here is not to help change the skill deficits in your learner, but rather not make your head explode. You are not a morally bereft person. You are human with human headaches. (However in this scenario, I wouldn't be surprised if the tantrum behavior increases in the future because you inadvertently reinforced it)

So then how can we use reinforcement with our children (or adults) without it sounding like bribing? Well, it may always sound like a bribe to you - it does to many of the parents I work with. I often hear "I shouldn't have to reward them for something they should be doing anyway." While that may feel true, I have to ask- how is it going for you with that mentality? Is it working? If not, it may be time to find some reinforcers that can help. (Don't forget the preference assessment!)

One way to look at it is that you are providing reinforcement contingent upon appropriate behavior, and the appropriate behavior should a behavior in which you are looking to change. For example, thinking back to the tantruming scenario above, one way to get around the use of a bribe is to wait for calm, or more appropriate behavior, then providing choices or a prompt to use words. After the alternative, appropriate behavior is demonstrated by the learner, then we can begin to reinforce that behavior. Make the reinforcement contingent on a specific behavior. For example, you could give your child choices of the next activity, or verbal praise and the expectation that "if you continue with calm behavior, we can grab an ice cream after we stop at the grocery store." I would still argue though, that the originally coveted toy that was denied and resulted in the tantrum not be an option. This could also inadvertently reinforce the tantruming, as the learner begins to chain their behavior together (such as "oh I have to scream and cry, then calm down, and Mom will give me what I want). 

Obviously, in this example, we are hypothesizing the function of tantruming is tangible. Therefore, we are not providing a tangible reinforcer for the undesirable behavior of screaming, which is the case in the bribe above. (I would also advise you to anticipate these challenges with your learner. If you know that denied access to tangibles is a trigger, you may consider utilizing reinforcement strategies before it gets to the point of tantruming, to avoid bribery all together). Check out this post for more information on function-based treatments and assessments.

If you want a nifty printable that outlines the difference between reinforcement and bribery, click the image below. Hope you can use this with your staff, families, and caregivers (or yourself!) to help better illustrate how you are not bribing your learners by providing reinforcement.


ABA at Play: reinforcement, differential reinforcement, scientific research, manipulating MOs, fading, treatment efficacy, generalization, evidence-based practices, token economies, behavioral contingencies, socially significant behavior, individualized supports, preference assessments


 

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