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Bribery vs Reinforcement: What's the Difference?

By Emily Habelrih

Earlier this week I posted my first ‘strategy snapshot’ which discussed the difference between positive reinforcement and bribery. A few people asked me to type up what was said, so here it is!


Positive reinforcement is a strategy that I often recommend for behahvioural difficulties and anxiety management. It is a strategy used by every behavioural therapist! Positive reinforcement is defined as the process of encouraging or establishing a pattern of behaviour by offering reward when the behaviour is exhibited.


When I suggest positive reinforcement as a strategy, a really common response I receive is ‘I don’t want to bribe my child’ or ‘I don’t want my child to rely on bribes!’ This for me is quite an interesting response, because the way I conceptualise these two things as totally different entities.


For me, bribery does not teach a lesson. The purpose of a bribe, in my opinion, is a ‘quick fix.’ Something needs to be done. It needs to be done fast, and there is no lesson learnt by the child. Now don’t get me wrong, I am all about the occasional shameless bribe! But for me, bribery is asking the child to do something that YOU want them to do. You are asking them to act the way YOU want them to act. Positive reinforcement differs from this in two ways. Firstly, positive reinforcement is used to teach the child a lesson, or a way to behave. Secondly, we aren’t wanting to do something because we said they need to do it, we are wanting them to do it because it is adaptive, and it will benefit them in the long run!


Think about it this way. You go to work every day, but you don’t get paid. You don’t even get verbal praise. Literally nothing is put in place to motivate you to continue doing your job to the best of your ability. Would you continue working? VERY UNLIKELY! It is the same with children. When I suggest strategies like this, it is typically because the child is struggling in some way, whether that be with behaviour or with worries, or with something else. For these children, the ‘right choice’ or the ‘most appropriate behaviour’ is more challenging for them. They need to work hard to make these choices, and in order to continue working hard, they need to stay motivated. What is a good way to keep children motivated? POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT. Do you guys see where I am going here?


Another thing that can often happen with reinforcement, is that it is implemented, and it WORKS, and everyone cheers, and all is right with the world, and everyone is cleaning their rooms and having dinner at the table and using the toilet appropriately and all is right with the world. Then, out of nowhere, BAAAAM! The reinforcement is stopped. The positive behaviour stops, old habits come back, and everyone is left scratching their heads at this mystery. Let me put it in adult terms again: imagine you are at work, and you are working hard, and you are getting paid for your hard work. Then one day, out of nowhere, your boss stops paying you. Would you continue to work? UNLIKELY! I don’t want to go too far into this, but there are ways to phase our reinforcement. The most common way to do this is intermittent reinforcement, which is when the reward is not administered each time the response is performed. Even with this strategy, it should not be done without the supervision of a psychologist/counsellor that can guide you through the most appropriate way to do this for your child.


My personal opinion however, is that if a reinforcement schedule is doing the job, why stop it? Our society is driven by reinforcement, and that stands for our kids too!



To learn more about behaviour strategies I use, check out the BEHAVIOUR BUNDLE which is available in the online store for purchase for just $7!

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