Behavioral Reinforcement and Punishment

Imagine a soldier in the Vietnaam War who has to walk through a field that could be boobie-trapped with land-mines! The soldier would move very cautiously, and slowly. He would carefully examine the ground before each step to make sure he was safe. After he has found a path to successfully get through the field, the soldier would only use that exact pathway to get back to his base. You would not expect the soldier to run and frolic freely through that land-mine like a child, would you? 

Why is changing our health habits and losing weight so hard? Why is it such a painful process? How can understanding behavioral psychology help me win back my health?

In this post, I will break down the behavioral psychology behind our habits. I will discuss how positive reinforcement opens the behavioral repertoire of the individual, allowing for appetitive responding to the environment. Whereas punishment closes the behavioral repertoire of the individual.

Psychological Development Stage of Trust vs. Mistrust– In Psychology, we understand that a child will go through a series of stages throughout their development. During infancy, children learn to trust their caregivers when care is warm, nurturing, and consistent (see Erikson’s 8 Stages of Development). However, the child may develop mistrust if the caregiver is cold, unresponsive to the child’s needs, inconsistent, or threatening to the child. When the child develops mistrust in this stage, he or she will often develop anxiety and fearfulness of the world around him, and as a result, may not be fully engaged with childlike play and curiosity.

When no intervention is provided to a child like this, the child may grow up detached from the world in a way that he or she does not fully engage out of curiosity. This means that the child could potentially grow into an adult who is afraid of trying new things, solving his own problems, or trusting other people. In Psychology, we call this a “narrowed behavioral repertoire,” which essentially means that the individual interacts and responds to the environment in only a few ways. This is actually an adaptive mechanism from the evolutionary perspective which allows us to survive in our environment.

When we feel that we are in a hostile environment (whether psychologically or physically), we tend to perform the same behavior that helps us avoid pain over and over again. For example, imagine a soldier in the Vietnaam War who has to walk through a field that could be boobie-trapped with land-mines! The soldier would move very cautiously, and slowly. He would carefully examine the ground before each step to make sure he was safe. After he has found a path to successfully get through the field, the soldier would only use that exact pathway to get back to his base. You would not expect the soldier to run and frolic freely through that land-mine like a child, would you?

Here’s another example. Imagine a child who misbehaves is scolded, spanked, and sent to his room for timeout. Reasonable punishment, right? When the parent goes into the room to talk to the child, he is laying on the bed, sobbing. The parent explains to the child that he was punished for X behavior, and that he can get up and go play now. However, the child does not move. He continues sobbing into his pillow. Why won’t he get up and go play? It’s because behavioral punishment does not only punish the target behavior, or misbehavior, which is the behavior that the parent does not want the child to engage in. Punishment works on all behaviors, which narrows the behavioral repertoire. Punishment causes the child to feel fear that he might “step on a landmine” in a sense, so the child may stop engaging in many behaviors. This is why many psychologists, behaviorists, and parenting experts are AGAINST punishment, especially involving spanking. What’s the alternative, then?

Positive Reinforcement: In a nutshell, positive reinforcement is rewarding an individual for performing a desired “target” behavior. When an individual knows which behaviors they will be most likely rewarded for, they will engage in those behaviors more frequently. This is a complex topic, but the point that I want to make is that when positive reinforcement is offered, the behavioral repertoire will expand. The individual will become curious about how they can receive more of the good stuff, and they will usually start to engage in a bigger variety of behaviors when they start to experience positive reinforcement. When an individual is searching for more reinforcement, this is called an “appetitive state,” imagine a bunny hopping around sniffing for yummy carrots or strawberries! This helps individuals to behave from a state of curiosity rather than a state of fear. From the appetitive state, we can shape the individual’s behavioral responding towards target behaviors while steering them “away” from non-desired behaviors simply by reinforcing target behaviors and not reinforcing the non-desired behaviors.

How does this relate to health behaviors? Many people who want to get healthy, lose weight, and reduce their risk of hypokinetic diseases (e.g. Heart Disease, Diabetes, High Blood Pressure, and more), often feel like that soldier in the boobie-trap field when it comes to health behaviors. They come from a lifetime of struggling with a narrowed repertoire of behaviors that help them survive in life, but they are by no means thriving in life!  And this means that they are afraid of trying new solutions. They are also afraid of the consequences that their poor health habits will have for them down the road. But they don’t know how to make lasting, healthful changes that will help them feel rewarded right now (positive reinforcement) and will have a positive impact on their long-term health.

What’s more, our culture often punishes people for being overweight or unhealthy. Body shaming overweight and obese people is just the tip of the iceburg! Some people try diets that actually use punishing tactics. Attitudes like “no pain, no gain,” or experiencing feeling annoyed by calorie counting (which often leads to obsession due to the fear of being out of control and overeating), are a few examples of unhelpful attempts to help people lose weight. In addition, I have heard people GLORIFY THE STATE OF BEING HUNGRY, (which is inherently an unpleasant experience), as if it were a way of controlling their body to lose weight. All of these examples are unpleasant experiences, which according to behavioral science, are forms of punishment. When encouraged to use these tactics during one’s health journey, an individual is essentially experiencing punishment for healthy behaviors. This will ALWAYS LEAD TO AVOIDANCE. ALWAYS!!!  There are so many ways that people feel punished during the weight loss process that some actually give up on their health journey altogether, because it’s just too painful!

This is the reason I want to be a health coach. I want to help people open up their health behavioral repertoire through setting up contingencies that lead to positive reinforcement for health behaviors. I want to help people find their own vitality through becoming curious about their world again. I want to help people get out of that land-mine field and into the joyful spirit of their inner child who wants to explore this world full of wonder, with hope, self-love, and playfulness.

True vitality comes from the spirit of adventure. Don’t let fear hold you back!

How have you experienced punishment on your health journey? What’s got you stuck? What has helped you learn to try new things? I wanna know! Leave me a comment!

❤ Hanna

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