Many thanks go out to my good friend, poetry publisher, and Spanish teacher, Barbara de la Cuesta, who asked me to consider people like her as the intended audience, a lay person to the science of behavior analysis, in writing this kind of essay.
The next time you hear a child screaming shrill inside a store, watch carefully. You will almost certainly see the parent giving him whatever he desires. If you can bear the alarming noise, you will witness the positive reinforcement principle taking shape before your very ears and eyes, how in a state of deprivation (hunger built up during a long delay between feedings) an "appetitive stimulus" (in another illustration, a Whopper® Sandwich Meal) presented quickly after a behavioral emission (driving to Burger King®) causes the behavior to reoccur more often in the future (In a few days or weeks we hop inside the car again to become on our way steady Burger King customers, and layered with more fat, no doubt.).
Parents often reinforce so-called “bad” behavior (whining in the candy aisle) by presenting it with a reward (a bag of candy), in order to shut him up, but only temporarily. Unaware of the reinforcement principle, unaware that their candy delivery is causing the whining to reoccur, they blame the child. Then they might "punish" him (a spanking in the car). Eventually, during shop after shop when the same thing keeps happening, the temper and the warning signs of threatened temper, the miniscule shriek with the demand to buy something special, exist in strength. Then as soon as he starts pouting, at the first sign of demand, they give him whatever he wants and they avoid the embarrassing scene at the market, the monster doing his monster thing.
Basically, a reinforcer is a stimulus that strengthens the response it quickly follows, so the presentation of reinforcers as soon as an individual emits a behavior makes it more likely to reoccur. The changing probability plays itself out in the calculations of the changing rates of responses over time. (We see an acquaintance we admire, we smile (our response), he smiles (his reinforcement of our response), we soon become friends as we smile at one another each time and see each other much more often (our rate of smiling increases, strengthens). The chances are high that we're gonna smile again whenever we encounter our good friend.)
If we can observe and count more frequent responses of a specific behavior over time during a set of conditions when we add a particular consequence to the response of an organism, human or otherwise, as opposed to a set of non-additive conditions when we hold all other variables held constant, then we can classify this stimulus as a reinforcer for this individual under these conditions. We can draw the pattern of responses and reinforcers as a set of points and curves upon x-y coordinates on a piece of graph paper.
On the other hand, a punisher or an aversive stimulus is an unpleasant stimulus that we tend to avoid or escape, but punishment and reinforcement are not opposites. A punisher does not weaken behavior the way a reinforcer will strengthen it. Punishment does not subtract from the rate of response what reinforcement adds to it. Instead punishment might only suppress a rate temporarily, but forceful use of punishment can weaken a target behavior such that total responses over time is reduced.
One particular stimulus might function as a reinforcer for one person and a punisher for another, a sushi roll, for example, of seaweed, white rice, raw salmon, and green wasabi horseradish. Some like it, others don't. It will reinforce me. I know that because I frequent the Japanese restaurants and I'll get the Sushi deluxe every time. It is non-reinforcing or punishing to those who have tried it and who always avoid it. I can take such a person to a Japanese restaurant and they will always order Hibachi, for instance, instead.
It helps to determine when a stimulus is "appetitive" (rewarding) and when it's "aversive" (punishing). To find out what kind of fruit is the best reinforcer for the child who takes out the trash, a parent can ask, "Which do you want, the apple or the orange?" If they choose the apple, then they can say, "Which do you want, the apple or the plum?" And so forth.
After eating a whole pie of pizza, ice cream doesn't sound so good, but in the midst of a starvation diet, people will hop in the car at midnight and drive to the 7-11 for a pint of Ben and Jerry's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough ice cream.
So physical objects, concrete stimuli, such as a piece of fruit, can function as reinforcers. Access to desirable activities can also reinforce. The Premack Principle suggests that the activities we do more often can reinforce the activities we do less often. Give somebody some free time and see what they choose to do more often. The more typically occurring free-time activity can be used to reinforce the less frequent activities. So during free time a child might play with a particular toy more often than uncluttering the play space. To apply the Premack principle, give access to a favorite toy only when the child has put the other toys in their proper place on the shelf. Do this and there is no need to punish the child for cluttering up the room.
Parents and spouses often yell and nag without a clue that their attention-doting behavior is reinforcing an unwanted behavior, causing it to repeat. ("How many times must I tell you? Stop picking your nose!") When a father is on the phone in the kitchen while the child is disorganizing the playroom with a scattering of toys spread all across the floor and then she comes in to reprimand him, he won't have any idea why the clutter shows up on the floor every single day, but the true cause of the clutter is his pattern of ignoring her when she's playing and then yelling at her when the playroom has passed the tipping point and entered the realm of chaos. He wonders out loud to her, "What has happened to you? Last year, you were such a good girl."
While critical attention in the form of parental yelling and spanking can reinforce an otherwise attention-starved child, the same yelling and spanking can punish the behavior of another child who is motivated by the approval of adults.
Generally, however, a much more thorough way to identify a stimulus as a reinforcer rather than a punisher is to to collect ABC functional analysis data, the antecedent (A) pre-response environmental stimuli or setting, the relative frequency over time of a well-defined specific behavioral (B) response, and the schedule of consequences (C) which typically follow that behavior, and then use the data to decide whether or not the rate of behavior increases as a result of these happenings.
A functional analysis can also determine the unknown causes of "problem" behavior after direct observation and collection of ABC data. Hence the function or behavior is revealed. What purpose does it serve?
Of course, this kind of data collection can be tedious, but not always. A pedometer and a behavior tracking ABC diary chart would be a convenient way to analyze the success of walking ten thousand steps a day. If steps per day is highest on days when a wife's walking routine is immediately followed by Sushi dinner as offered by her husband, we know Sushi is a reinforcer.
On the other hand, if she walks less on Mondays and only on Mondays does he gives her Sushi as soon as she comes in from a workout, then chances seem to indicate that Sushi is an aversive for her.
She could draw a curved line on a sheet of graph paper of steps per Sushi consequence day and draw another curve of steps per non-Sushi consequence day. This could help identify the stimulus as appetitive or aversive, if she really felt like doing it.
The Futility of Punishment and Its Alternatives
Coercive punishment has unwanted byproducts: anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, anger, hostility, escape, avoidance, and retaliation. The US finds itself fighting the "terrorist threat" because Obama is dropping bombs on families attending Pakistani weddings in his desperate hunt for another one who might have joined the party. Punishment begets punishment upon the punisher by the punishee, and so on ad infinitum. US terror of the global community causes the global community to terrorize the US. It's as simple as this: We are creating our own terrorists.
Punishment alone doesn't teach us what we ought to be doing. However, it does teach us how to escape and avoid it, and this can create other unwanted behavior. When the US Air Force carpet bombed the villages of the so-called North Vietnamese "enemy," they built underground tunnels and sniped the young American soldiers from their well-hidden ambush deep inside the jungle. So the USA bombs didn't cause a Vietnamese surrender. Rather their hidden escapes from the USA death machine helped bring about the USA surrender. To take another example, the threat of arrest contingent upon a cop spotting a user of drugs doesn't stop the drug use, but it does make the users go into hiding when they are about to consume their drugs.
So instead of punishing unwanted behaviors, which causes more problems than it solves, a better strategy would be to extinguish them. Problem behaviors can exist in strength because of previous reinforcement, as seen in the previous paragraph. This tendency to emit a behavior can be eliminated by thoroughly and consistently withholding the reinforcers that have been keeping it in place and simultaneously reinforcing incompatible acceptable behaviors that cannot occur at the same time and place as the unwanted target behavior. ("We don't give candy to whiners, but we do give popcorn to children who ask for it nicely.")
Coercion is unnecessary when we know how to reinforce properly. For example, we can prevent the emergence of an occasion where people normally call out for punishment by not reinforcing unwanted behavior in the first place. So by raising a child no reinforcement for delinquent behavior, then the development of a child into a more "hardened criminal" who the public loves to put away in jail never takes place. The Police Athletic League can be coaching some teenagers on the basketball court who can't be spraying graffiti while they're shooting hoops.
As soon as a new "problem" behavior first emerges in a toddler, as another illustration of how so-called "punishable" acts can be eliminated without punishment, be careful not to reinforce it. So the first time the child has control over the television remote, be sure the parental controls against violent programs are activated on the set. If this is impossible, then toss the TV into the recyclable trash heap and teach him or her how to use a parentally controlled computer. Since children readily play with toy guns, it is possible that the activity of watching a violent TV episode will reinforce the activity of switching the channels on the remote control until a violent TV network appears on the screen. So blocking that network from appearing on the set prevents the problem from occurring in the first place. Punishment for watching a forbidden program would be a non-issue since violence is blocked in the home at that very early age. Meanwhile, hopefully, the child is engaging with some wholesome educational programs and websites. Under similar modifications, prosocial behavior (such as designing an environmentally friendly imaginary township on a computer application) becomes the new norm incompatible to the old antisocial norm (violent video games).
Behaviorally demonstrated, scientifically analyzed alternatives to punishment include 1) reinforcement of lower rates of problem behavior responding, 2) reinforcement for not behaving in a given way, 3) task analysis to prevent problematic task avoidance and escape behavior (to prevent a disabled teenager from "bolting" out the classroom door, break difficult demanding tasks down into non-demanding easier steps and shaping the goal behavior one step at a time, 4) positive instructional control, telling the child to do something he wants to do develops a habit of following parental instructions.
So the rule for effective behavior modification, don't reward so-called "bad" behavior, is more relevant than it might seem to someone who has not been trained in the principles of behavior analysis. Follow this rule from infancy on to young adult emancipation from the home, and the youngster develops a good array of pro-social behavior.
Within the functions of everyday reinforcement, the consent of the recipient of reinforcing contingencies is generally automatic at any age. We prefer what draws us in to consume them, the appetitive stimuli. That is why we do not dissent from eating dinner when we haven't eaten all day.
Furthermore, deductive logical analysis shows that with ample reinforcement of "good" behavior, there's no time for "bad" behavior to emerge - as long as it goes unreinforced. We strengthen the behavior relative to other behaviors in the total repertoire of the behaving organism, causing that strong behavior to emerge more often than weaker behavior. The calendar of a life span is limited and a response consumes a minimal time unit within the life of an individual. So the stronger responses crowd the schedule of any give day and shove the weaker ones out of the total repertoire of emergent behavior. Under heavy reinforcement of "desirable" or "pro-social" behavior, there's no time for the much weaker, under-reinforced, unwanted behavior to emerge.
Today it is common to hear people argue that punishment is necessary because of the multitude of thieves, murderers, bribe inducing corporate executives, and bribe induced corrupt politicians. How else are we supposed to stop it? Don't they deserve their just punishment? They must suffer and pay the price of their sins!
Instead, society-wide training of all people of all ages in constructive uses of behavior analysis could eliminate so-called criminal behavior, so under lifetimes of learning with the alternatives to punishment, antisocial behavior is prevented, and punishment is moot. Punishment becomes a non-issue.
So coercion today is not necessary when problems can be thoroughly prevented.
So in the Utopian world without borders, the six o'clock news would lead with a story on how to create some more good stories. There are no vicious cries to make the wrong-doer suffer for his sins, all in the name of "justice." Prosecuting attorneys would be relics of the past. The hollowed out shells of the corporate owned prisons, the hotbeds of unethical profiteering from cruel and unusual solitary confinement, torture, and abuse, the appeasement of a racist, vehement populace where prisons are packed to the brim with dark skinned Americans and immigrants, would exist only as museums, physical reminders of the by-gone era, the barbaric overly-punitive American society.