Edward Thorndike’s Law of effect stipulates that behaviors followed by positive consequences are more likely to be repeated in the future, and that behaviors followed by negative consequences are less likely to be repeated. Why, then, do large numbers of people, particularly in adolescence, engage in self-injury, or deliberate physical damage without suicidal intent (Klonsky & Muehlenkamp, 2007)? Up to 25% of teens have tried self-injury at least once (Lovell & Clifford, 2016). Most initiate self-injury while in middle school (grades 6 through 8), and approximately 6% of college students continue to self-injure.
As this chapter has detailed, reward and punishment are in the eye of the beholder. The first challenge that we face in our analysis of self-injury is the assumption that pain is always a negative consequence. For most of us, it is. However, adolescents who engage in self-injury report feelings of relief or calm, despite the obvious pain that they inflict on themselves. Such feelings probably reinforce further bouts of self-injury. Self-injury often occurs in response to feelings of anger, anxiety, and frustration, and alleviation of these negative feelings might reward the injurious behavior (Klonsky, 2007; Klonsky & Muehlenkamp, 2007). Finally, injury is associated with the release of endorphins, our bodies’ natural opioids. The positive feelings associated with endorphin release also might reinforce the behavior.
Self-injury frequently occurs in people diagnosed with psychological disorders, such as depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, or substance abuse, which are discussed further in Chapters 7 and 14. Others engaging in the behavior have a history of sexual abuse. Observations that captive animals in zoos and laboratories are often prone to self-injury might provide additional insight into the causes of this behavior (Jones & Barraclough, 1978). Treatment usually consists of therapy for any underlying psychological disorders, along with avoidance, in which the person is encouraged to engage in behaviors that are incompatible with self-harm. To assist these individuals further, we need to be able to see reward and punishment from their perspective, not just our own.
If the consequences of a behavior influence how likely a person is to repeat the behavior in the future, how can we explain the prevalence of self-injury? Why don’t the painful consequences of the behavior make people stop? In situations like this, operant conditioning tells us that we need to look for possible reinforcers for the behavior that override the painful outcomes. In the case of self-injury, people report feeling calm and relief. To treat such behaviors effectively, psychologists need to understand what advantages they provide from the perspective of the person doing the behavior.
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The Premack principle can help you maintain good time management. If you prefer socializing to studying, use the opportunity to socialize as a reward for meeting your evening’s study goals.
If everyone has a different set of effective reinforcers, how do we know which to use? A simple technique for predicting what a particular animal or person will find reinforcing is the Premack principle, which states that whatever behavior an organism spends the most time and energy doing is likely to be important to that organism (Premack, 1965). It is possible, therefore, to rank people’s free-time activities according to their priorities. If Lahey had been able to observe his young client’s eating habits before starting training, it is unlikely that he would have made the mistake of offering M&Ms as reinforcers. The opportunity to engage in a higher-priority activity is always capable of rewarding a lower-priority activity. Your grandmother may never have heard of Premack, but she knows that telling you to eat your broccoli to get an ice cream generally works.
Both Thorndike and Skinner agreed that positive reinforcement is a powerful tool for managing behavior. In our later discussion of punishment, we will argue that the effects of positive reinforcement are more powerful than the effects of punishment. Unfortunately, in Western culture, we tend to provide relatively little positive reinforcement. We are more likely to hear about our mistakes from our boss than all the things we’ve done correctly. It is possible that we feel entitled to good treatment from others, so we feel that we should not have to provide any reward for reasonably expected behaviors. The problem with this approach is that extinction occurs in operant, as well as in classical, conditioning. A behavior that is no longer reinforced drops in frequency. By ignoring other people’s desirable behaviors instead of reinforcing them, perhaps with a simple thank-you, we risk reducing their frequency.
According to the Premack principle, a preferred activity can be used to reinforce a less preferred activity. Most children prefer candy over carrots, so rewarding a child with candy for eating carrots often increases carrot consumption. One little boy with autism spectrum disorder, however, preferred carrots to M&Ms, and his training proceeded more smoothly when carrot rewards were substituted for candy rewards.