How to Change Behavior

I.                    Four ways to change behavior

a.       Decrease behavior

                                     i.      Punishment – get something you don’t want (e.g. a verbal reprimand)

                                     ii.      Penalty – lose something you do want (freedom to choose how you complete a job)

b.      Increase behavior

                                     i.      Negative Reinforcement – escape or avoid something you don’t want (e.g. someone yelling at you)

                                     ii.      Positive Reinforcement – get something you want (e.g. praise, recognition, monetary bonus)

II.                 Advantages and disadvantages of punishment and penalty

a.       Advantages1,2

                                     i.      Changes behavior very quickly, especially if the punisher is severe

                                     ii.      Could lead to the behavior completely stopping

b.      Disadvantages

                                    i.      Doesn’t tell people what to do; it just tells them what not to do1

                                    ii.      Negative emotional reactions1,2

III.               Advantages and disadvantages of negative reinforcement

a.       Advantages

                                    i.      Increase behavior1,2

                                    ii.      Provides compliance to minimum standards of performance1

b.      Disadvantages 1

                                    i.      Only produces enough to meet minimums (will not provide maximum behavior).  People experiencing negative reinforcement will only work as hard as they have to in order to avoid the consequences; does not encourage their maximum effort

                                    ii.      Negative emotional reactions

IV.              Advantages and disadvantages of positive reinforcement

a.       Advantages

                                    i.      Increase behavior1,2

                                    ii.      Maximizes performance 1,2

1.      will capture discretionary effort – level of productivity a person is capable of giving if they want to1

                                    iii.      sustains change for a long period of time (if reinforcers continue to occur)

                                    iv.      No negative emotional reactions1,2

V.           Positive reinforcement is the best alternative to changing behavior because it produces the greatest increase in behavior, it is rewarding to the person and does not produce negative reactions, and will sustain overtime (assuming that the positive reinforcement continues)

VI.         Steps to finding positive reinforcers * consequences are defined as positive or negative by the person receiving them1

a.       Try something – smile at someone or say “good job” and see if it increases their behavior

b.      Ask them – ask him what would be positively reinforcing, but be careful because asking might lead him to expect to get whatever he says will reinforce him (like more money) and it may not be something that is realistic

c.       Observe – watch a person and see what he spends time doing; what he appears to like, then use that to positively reinforce him

VII.            Sources of positive reinforcement1

a.       Work-related – reinforced by task alone

b.      Peer-related

c.       Management-related

VIII.         Ways to effectively give positive reinforcement1

a.       Make sure what you give IS actually reinforcing to that person

b.      Give the reinforcer only when the behavior is exhibited

c.       Give the reinforcer immediately after the behavior

d.      Give the reinforcer frequently (when the behavior occurs)

e.       Don’t use positive reinforcement as an opportunity to criticize by “sandwiching” (e.g. “you did great this time, next time I want to see a 10% increase, I know you have it in you”)

Relevant Competencies:
Motivating Others, Learning, and Enhancing Performance


1  Daniels, A. C. (2000).  Bringing out the best in people:  How to apply the astonishing
         power of positive reinforcement (2nd ed.)
New York:  McGraw-Hill.

2  Sarafino, E. P. (2001).  Behavior Modification (2nd ed.)  Boston:  McGraw-Hill.

~Contributed by Heather Kchodl