Lost, Empty, and Stuck: The Pitfalls of Negatively Reinforced Behavior

Bryan square

posted by Bryan Landaas, LCSW

Lost. Empty. Stuck.

I often hear these words uttered when people describe what’s brought them into my office for therapy and I have found a striking commonality: their day-to-day activity has somehow evolved to consist primarily of negatively reinforced behavior.

What’s the significance of this?

First, let’s do a super-quick tutorial on operant conditioning. Operant conditioning in a nutshell is a type of learning through rewards and punishments. Rewards are what really shape behavioral patterns that persist over time (punishment typically produces only short-lived behavior change) and there are two basic forms of rewards: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement occurs when a desired/pleasurable consequence immediately follows a behavior (something is added +, hence the term “positive”). Negative reinforcement occurs when an undesired consequence/state is either removed or avoided (think subtracted). Regardless of how a behavior is reinforced, if it is reinforced that means the behavior is likely to be repeated.

Here’s an example.

If you take a gulp of milk and it tastes cold and yummy, you drinking the milk has been positively reinforced by the pleasurable taste and you are likely to continue drinking milk in the future.

However, if you take a gulp of milk and it tastes warm and spoiled, the nasty flavor of the milk serves as a punishment and may decrease the likelihood of you drinking milk in the future.

The next time you encounter a carton of milk, you will probably smell the milk to make sure that it’s not spoiled, and THAT behavior (i.e., smelling) becomes negatively reinforced in that you did so in order to avoid a undesired experience (i.e., tasting spoiled milk.). Each time you smell milk before drinking and successfully avoid drinking spoiled milk, your mind interprets that as escaping an unpleasant situation.

In the above example, notice that in order for the smelling of the milk to become negatively reinforced the milk doesn’t have to actually be spoiled. The mere memory of the taste of spoiled milk in the past creates an uncomfortable psychological state that we will in turn interpret as something to be avoided and, unless actively confronted, will likely become one of those odd, idiosyncratic habits we accumulate on our journey through life (which I admittedly have done).

So what’s so bad about negatively reinforced behavior? Nothing…necessarily. There are countless behaviors that we all engage in every day that are negatively reinforced and are extremely beneficial. Brushing our teeth, taking out the trash, scratching an itch, taking a nap…you get the point.  But imagine if your days consisted only of these negatively reinforced behaviors!

The real downside to negatively reinforced behavior is that it doesn’t bring about a sense of fulfillment. While it might prevent real or perceived discomfort, disaster, or “bad things” from happening, I’ve yet to meet a person who genuinely believes that his/her life’s ambition is to avoid discomfort and danger at all costs.

If you find that your days are becoming increasingly filled with negatively reinforced behaviors do yourself a favor and find ways to tip the scale in favor of more positively reinforced behavior. If you are having a difficult time figuring out how exactly you might go about this, start by taking your normal daily activities and try connecting them to some higher purpose or value. Why brush your teeth? Because you value proper hygiene and want to set a good example for your children. Why take your dog out for a walk? Because you value being a responsible pet-owner. Why take the trash out? Because you take pleasure in knowing your spouse won’t have to. Just like our minds can trick us into misery, we can learn to outsmart our minds in order to bring about happiness.

Happiness and well-being isn’t about avoiding the bad, it’s all about pursuing the good.