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Give Your Motivation a Makeover with a Little Psychology

Got motivation? If not, try these simple psychological tricks of the trade

When it came to figuring out the basis for motivation, one of the field's earliest psychologists had it right. B.F. Skinner wasn’t the first psychologist to study the effect of rewards on behavior. However, his work paved the way for decades of subsequent research on the ways in which humans and other animals could most effectively be shaped to learn.

One of Skinner’s main contributions was to underscore the value of positive reinforcement. Skinner showed that if you want someone to change, you’re better off using the carrot than the stick. Punishing people for performing bad undesirable behavior, according to Skinner, is less likely to lead them to change than is giving them encouragement for doing what you want. In fact, punishment might even have the opposite effect than what you intend by making them angry, scared, or a little of both.

Let’s switch gears, though, and talk about how to motivate yourself. We’ve just seen that punishing others isn’t the best strategy to get them to change their behavior, and the same is true when it comes to changing your own behavior. It’s tempting to get down on yourself for failing to meet your goals, but the end result will only be causing yourself to get more discouraged than ever.

The first step in using reinforcement to motivate yourself is to identify rewards that will work to help you change. What activities do you truly enjoy? What are you especially good at doing? What can you reasonably allow yourself to have on a regular basis as a treat? A little values clarification exercise such as this can give you some self-insights, but for the present purposes, if you can list out 4 or 5 rewards that you know you will work hard to get, you’ll be on your way toward that motivational boost. It’s possible that the behaviors you find most rewarding are the exact behaviors you’re trying to change (smoking, overeating, not exercising, playing online games). This is okay. As long as you tie a reward with a change in behavior (smoking less, eating less, exercising more, spending less time on those games), you can still work with this reward. Preferably, however, you choose a behavior as a reward that is different than the one you’re trying to change.

Second, figure out what rewards now maintain your behavior. What is it about online games that keeps you wanting more? Why do you gamble so much more even though you keep losing? What’s the lure behind your compulsive shopping? Skinner discovered that our behavior is maintained at differing rates depending on the so-called “schedule” of reinforcements. The creatures in Skinner’s “Skinner box” showed entirely different patterns of responding based on when and under what circumstances they received rewards. Although they were more likely to acquire a behavior when it was rewarded every time it occurred, once the behavior was established, the pigeons would peck more for a pellet of food if it only became available some of the time. These “partial” schedules of reinforcement kept them from getting lazy and complacent. On the continuous schedule, since they got rewarded every time they pecked a lever, then they’d only peck when they really needed the reward. On a partial schedule, the reward had the potential to become less predictable or at least less easy to obtain.

There are two dimensions to reinforcement schedules. The first is the type of reinforcement patterns: fixed or variable. As the terms imply, fixed occur at a specified time and variable, well, can vary. However, you can set the rates of variable reinforcement so they occur, on average, in the same frequency as the fixed pattern. All that differs, then, is whether you know exactly when the reward will be provided or only approximately when it will occur. The second dimension is the basis for the reinforcement, and whether it will be time- or response-based. In time-based reinforcement, you will get the reward if you perform the desired behavior at any point in the interval (hence, it’s the “interval” type). In response-based reinforcement, you receive the reward for every X number of correct responses you perform (called the “ratio” type).

Putting together the type of reinforcement with the basis for reinforcement, you get these 4 schedules of reinforcement:

Fixed interval: A reward occurs if the desired behavior occurs in a specific window of time. A good example is a “Tuesday discount,” in which people get a certain percent off a price (or there’s a sale) on that particular day. If you know you’ll get a discount, you’ll buy something on Tuesday rather than Monday.

Variable interval: A reward occurs if the desired behavior occurs, during a specific window of time whose time may be 5, 10, 60 minutes apart, or longer. This is a common promotion used by radio stations that announce you’ll win a prize such as tickets or a bonus if you are the 10th caller, say, at some point in a 1-hour time period from 9-10 am. The prize opportunity may be given at 9:05, 9:25, or even 9:58 am.

Fixed ratio: You earn a reward for every specified number of responses you perform. This is another common marketing ploy. A coffee shop offers its customers a free cup of coffee after every 10th that they purchase or you get one free item in a store for every three of the same item that you buy.

Variable ratio: You earn a reward for responding, on average, every “xth” time. A good example of this schedule is an online game that offers you bonuses for an average of every 25th game you play. Variable ratio schedules also operate in relationships. Perhaps your girlfriend will laugh at your jokes only every 5th joke you tell. You know you’ll get a smile once in a while, but you can’t predict when she’ll reward you for your witticisms.

As you can see from these descriptions, each type of schedule from Skinner’s lab animals has a real-life counterpart. You can also see how some of these schedules seem more likely to keep you performing the desired (or undesired) behavior. If you’re hooked on something, chances are that it offers reinforcements on a variable ratio schedule. You never know when you’ll get rewarded, though you know from experience that rewards will be coming at some point. Therefore, you keep behaving at a high and steady rate. Because you may not know exactly where you are in the reinforcement sequence (1st or 25th game will produce the reward), this type of schedule produces behavior that, as they say, is highly resistant to extinction. All it takes is one reward and you’re onto the next sequence which, again, could go for as long as 24 times, or could occur at the very next turn.

A fixed ratio schedule also tends to produce high rates of responding, because the reward is in your control. The more you peck that proverbial lever, the more you’ll get. However, because you know the odds of getting reinforced, you may stop and take a breather after you perform the desired activity.

The variable interval schedule can potentially keep you responding frequently, but because time (unlike response frequency) isn’t under your control, if the time interval is long enough you’ll sit back and rest until the next reward becomes available.

You’ll respond the least frequently if your behavior is being maintained by a fixed interval schedule. You may keep at that behavior for a long time because in some ways it’s the easiest to maintain, but you’ll experience the least amount of pressure to respond quickly.

I’ve taken a few liberties in describing these schedules in applying them to everyday behavior, and as a result, there are probably some died-in-the-wool behaviorists out there who are rolling your eyes. However, the everyday examples do show how we adjust our behavior to the schedule of reinforcement that we’re given either by marketers, bosses, relationship partners, or even ourselves.

Let’s move on, though, and see how you can turn these schedules around to use them to your benefit. If you know that you’ll respond the most frequently and the longest to variable ratio schedule, then this can help you explain some of your more addictive or compulsive behaviors. How about if you’re not motivated enough to perform a behavior? Is that because it’s on a fixed interval schedule? Break down the behavior, analyze its schedule, and with that insight, recognize how you don’t have to be controlled by a schedule that’s not working toward your advantage.

We’ve covered a lot of ground here, and these ideas are just a start to help you understand how your behavior may be controlled by forces you don’t realize. There’s just one more point that can help you use reinforcement to your benefit. This is the difference between negative and positive reinforcement. Unfortunately, because we think of reinforcement as a reward, it’s hard to imagine how reinforcement could be negative, other than to cause us pain (which would be punishment). However, negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. Because reinforcement always strengthens a response, negative reinforcement must also increase a behavior’s strength. It’s just that it operates by what it takes away, not what it adds. Consider this example. Your friend needs you to book a ticket so that the two of you can take a vacation together. However, you keep putting it off. Your friend starts sending you angry texts and doesn’t stop until you book the ticket. Your behavior of booking the ticket was increased by the fact that by performing it, you removed the aversive stimulus of your friend’s angry texts.

Negative reinforcement is useful for motivating yourself to perform a desirable behavior when you can administer aversive stimuli to yourself. You could program your phone to send you an alarm every 10 minutes (or, on the average, every 10 minutes) until you engage in the desired behavior of cleaning up your email inbox. Once you perform the desired behavior, you unprogram your phone and, voila, the inbox is now cleansed!

We like to think that our behavior is more complex than that of a pigeon in a Skinner box. However, by taking a few pages out of the behaviorist’s playbook, you can see that you can structure your own reinforcements in ways that can motivate and guide you toward important, and fulfilling, behavior change.

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