Positive and Negative – Rory Miller

About the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative.’

In operant conditioning, behaviors are changed by either reinforcement, which increases the target behavior, or punishment, which decreases the target behavior.

Behaviorists break down reinforcement and punishment further as either positive or negative.

Positive and negative in this context are not value judgement or ethical markers. “Positive punishment” does not mean “good punishment.” They are also not like the mathematical values of positive and negative. “Negative reinforcement” absolutely does NOT mean “punishment.”

In behavioral psychology, “positive” refers to presence and “negative” refers to absence. If I am using positive reinforcement, I am introducing something into the system to increase the behavior. If I am using negative reinforcement, I am removing something from the system to increase the behavior. Food can be positive reinforcement because it tastes good and simultaneously negative reinforcement because it removes hunger. Corporal punishment is positive punishment because it introduces pain into the system. Confinement is negative punishment because it removes stimulation from the environment.

There are some conflict and life management skills that require this understanding of positive and negative. I’ll describe a few here.

The first is a very basic positive speech pattern. You will find clearer communication if you are careful to use positive language. Again, positive does not mean happy or encouraging.

Positive speech is to give instruction on what to do. Negative speech would be to give instruction on what NOT to do.

If you tell a child, “Don’t play in the river” the child may not hear the “don’t.” The child may actively focus away from the “don’t” and honestly believe he or she was ordered to play in the river. Further, proscription is not as limiting as we would like. The child can follow your order while choosing to play on the rocks above the river or with the alligators next to the river, or decide building a dam is working on the river not playing in the river.

Positive speech is to tell the child what to do, not what is forbidden. Negative: “Don’t play in the river.” Positive: “Go play in the treehouse.”

The second. Whenever possible, use positive instruction and praise over criticism. Telling a student he is doing something wrong does not help him do it right. Even if instructions are included, e.g. “Don’t do it that way, do it this way” there are two messages to understand instead of one and all of the problems of negative speech described above are still in play. Simply saying, “Do it this way” will be far more easily understood.

Using instruction instead of criticism, has other value as well. Criticism, no matter how well delivered or well intentioned is always a punishment. It will always decrease behavior. When poor behavior need to be stopped, it has some uses, but when you are trying to increase good behavior, whether in interaction or instruction, criticism does absolutely nothing.

If the instruction is good, following the instructions makes life better in some way. Pretty much by definition, if any training or instruction makes life worse, it’s bad training. This means you do not have to reinforce behavior, the results reinforce the behavior for you. When reinforcement or punishment comes from a person (you, in this case) the lesson can always be denied by the subject if he or she decides you are being unfair or have an ulterior motive.

A third application of the positive/negative mindset is very powerful. It is easier to do nothing than something, but it is far easier to do something than to not do something. Confused?

Animals are inherently lazy. In nature, animals rarely burn calories unless they have to. It is easier to sit and watch a gazelle than to chase one down.

However, one of the hardest things for people to deal with is a void. When you are used to doing something, not following that habit becomes hard. It is always easier to substitute a new good habit than it is to quit an old bad habit.

Most people have a hard time dieting because they are giving up foods they like. It is far easier to change diet if you think of it in the positive sense: not giving up food, but looking for new foods you like better. Not buying potato chips is hard. It is a negative. Buying celery instead of potato chips is considerably easier. Quitting smoking is hard. Taking up a hobby, like knitting, so you have something to do when you want to smoke is not easy, but much easier.

Cutting bad things out of your life is the negative (absence) approach and can be quite difficult. The positive approach, substituting good things for the bad is far easier and more effective.


One thought on “Positive and Negative – Rory Miller”

  1. I learned that positive beats negative quite a while back but the idea of substituting a new “good” habit for an old “bad” is an update. Thanks.

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