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How to Change Behavior through Positive Reinforcement

Updated: Mar 28

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Changing behavior can be challenging. It is a process that takes focus and practice, but it is certainly something that you can achieve. Whether it involves work, diet, family, exercise, completing chores, or anything else, positive reinforcement can be used to effectively change behavior.

Positive reinforcement is a way to reward behavior that you want to repeat, and it works so well because change is easier when it is enjoyable. In short, adding a reward will help you associate pleasant feelings with desirable behaviors and increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Eventually, you will look forward to carrying out the new behavior because it makes you feel good.

Rewards do not need to be complex or expensive. Simple rewards increase the good feelings needed to reinforce a behavior. Rewards work best when they are small, enjoyable, and (because we value immediate rewards over delayed rewards) carried out promptly after the behavior has occurred. This exercise will guide you through the process of using positive reinforcement to help you forge a path towards a new, more desirable behavior.

Step 1: Identifying a behavior to reinforce

In this step, you will take a moment to consider a behavior you would like to change. When you think about what you wish to change, try to formulate it as making a positive change rather than avoiding something negative. For example, “I want to start working out twice a week” is much better than “I need to stop being so lazy.”


Step 2: Choosing a suitable reward

To change a behavior, you first need to find the right reward to reinforce it. Rewards do not have to cost money, and they can include activities like watching a movie, doing a hobby, or playing a game. The same reward may not work for everyone, so this is a personal choice for you to make. Using the example above, “I want to start working out twice a week,” a small and immediate reward might be something like allowing yourself time to rest and relax after a gym session. To give another example, after finishing a homework assignment, an immediate reward could be playing a computer game. Or, after writing up a work report, a suitable reward might be enjoying a nice meal with your spouse.


Step 3: Reflecting on your experience

Now that you have rewarded your chosen behavior, it is important to let yourself savor the positive feelings that it created. Immediately after you have enjoyed your reward, take a moment to think about the experience and ask yourself the following question: What good feelings am I experiencing right now?


References

1. Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. MacMillan.

2. Clear, J. (2018). Atomic habits: Tiny changes, remarkable results. Penguin Random

House.

3. O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (1999). Doing it now or later. American Economic Review,

89, 103-124.

4. Woolley, K., & Fishbach, A. (2018). It’s about time: Earlier rewards increase intrinsic

motivation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 114, 877.

5. Flannery, M. (2017). Self-determination theory: Intrinsic motivation and behavioral

change. Oncology Nursing Forum, 44, 155-156.



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