‘Atta-Boy’: Perfecting the Art of Praise

Helping our brains bookmark successful moments in time

Posted Jul 28, 2017

Hey, good job!  Yes, I’m talking to you.  That was outstanding.  Really fine work.  I mean it.  Can you do it for me again?  Right now? 

Probably not, right?  Because you’re not even sure what I’m talking about.

C’mon, you know.  That thing you did last week.  It was amazing!  How could you forget?

You did it.  You were there.  But you’ve probably forgotten what, precisely, it was that you did to facilitate the winning touchdown, to secure the big deal at work, or even to avoid conflict on the homefront and produce instead a feeling of well-being in others.

Effective coaches and teammates (whether on a playing field or off) intuitively know how to mark a moment in time so that it becomes more memorable to us, thereby increasing the likelihood of our own future success.  But providing meaningful feedback can sometimes take practice – and occasionally even requires a bit of social risk.

In and of itself, positive feedback isn’t enough.  Good timing, it turns out, is what really matters.  Behaviorists speak of the importance of immediacy of reinforcement. 

Simply stated, reinforcement is at its most effective when there is minimal time delay between the desired behavior being performed and the delivery of a reinforcer, verbal praise or otherwise.  Conversely, the more time that elapses between desired behavior and reinforcement, the weaker the associative link becomes between the two, often to the detriment of behavioral learning. 

Think, for a moment, of that coming-of-age moment when the training wheels come off the bicycle.  We’ve typically been riding and enjoying ourselves for quite some time when this happens, for months or even years.  Because we like riding our bicycles, our bike-riding behavior is intrinsically rewarded.  No external praise or feedback required.

Suddenly, with training wheels removed, the flow of reward for our bike riding behavior is momentarily interrupted.  Not only aren’t we having so much fun anymore, but we are also forced by necessity into new ways of doing things – learning through creative experimentation how to subtly shift our bodies this way and that, redistributing weight.

We fall and we complain.  In fact, we may be in danger of quitting for good and never riding our bicycles again. 

If we’re lucky, however, an encouraging caretaker is on hand to offer us a steady stream of praise: “There you go, good balance, keep going, you’re doing great!”  Whew, what a relief it is to have someone caring in our corner!  In the beginning, every effort gets rewarded.

Once the basic behavior – that of engaging in creative experimentation – is in place, reinforcement need not, and in fact ultimately should not, follow every effort.  You wouldn’t, after all, continue to stand at the street corner shouting praises to a child who has been riding a bicycle for two years.  Praise can drop away as the child eventually experiences a sense of creative play which becomes, over time, its own reward. 

What has taken place is known in behavioral parlance as operant conditioning, a term belonging to that branch of behavioral psychology which holds as its fundamental premise that behavior is controlled by its consequences.  Praise, in this instance, is the consequence of continuing to experiment with ways to stay upright on the bike.  Eventually, staying upright becomes intrinsically rewarding as a way of experiencing the consequent joys of riding.

Interrupt the immediacy of reinforcement, and massive confusion results. 

To illustrate the importance of immediacy, veteran dolphin trainers sometimes play a version of the old childhood game “Hot-and-Cold” to help new trainers better understand how frustrating delays in feedback can be.

A novice trainer selected to play dolphin is momentarily excused while the rest of the group hides an object, let’s say a pencil, somewhere nearby.  A second newbie trainer is selected to be a guide for the “dolphin” – using the verbal cues “hot” when the dolphin gets nearer to the pencil’s secret location and “cold” when the dolphin falls off course. 

Here’s the catch:

The guide is holding hands with a long chain of hand-holding trainers.  Perhaps there are twelve people or more in the chain.  The dolphin’s guide isn’t allowed to provide verbal feedback to the dolphin until his hand is squeezed – once for “hot”, twice for “cold”.  What is more, only a designated observer at the far end of the chain can initiate the feedback ripple of hand squeezing.  The bigger the chain, the longer the delay in feedback becomes.

By the time the dolphin receives positive feedback from the guide, the dolphin is frequently off on a different course or facing the wrong direction entirely.  Although the game is fun for all, the trainer playing dolphin invariably becomes hopelessly confused and gives up the pencil hunt.  Point taken. 

In day-to-day human interactions, immediate positive feedback comes our way when others smile, laugh, wink, nod, offer high-fives, or break out in silly dancing jigs of approval.  Our actions in those moments become memorable to us, and we are likely to repeat them under similar circumstances in the future. 

Sometimes, though, offering praise feels somewhat risky in a social sense.  This can be particularly true when two people don’t yet know each other well, or when the feedback to be offered would run “uphill”, say from employee to employer instead of the other way around. 

Just remember, as social animals, we all enjoy being an accepted part of whatever herd we happen to be running with, and few things broadcast acceptance with as much vigor as a bit of well-timed praise.  If you like it, be sure to say so.  Not later, but right now.

Copyright © Seth Slater, 2017