Reinforcement vs Bribery

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Almost every behavior analyst has heard the following, “Aren’t you just bribing my child?” And it’s understandable that this question gets asked often, because reinforcement is frequently mistaken for bribery. But what if I told you there was an important, yet subtle, difference between the two?

Let me start off by going over what reinforcement is. Reinforcement is something that happens after a behavior has occurred that increases the chances of that behavior occurring again.

For example: A child who eats all of her vegetables at dinner and is given desert afterwards. Or a child who has cleaned their room and then gets to play a game with his mom.

*Remember reinforcement only works if the behavior increases in the future. Otherwise it’s just a neutral stimulus.

Now, let’s look at bribery. According to the Merriam-Webster definition, it says that a bribe is “something that serves to induce or influence”. Bribes can be used to sway another person’s behavior.

Okay, I know what you’re thinking, that both reinforcement and bribery still sound similar. So, here’s that subtle difference I was speaking about, bribery happens before the behavior occurs.

It’s kinda like standing in Target and saying, “Okay Jimmy, I’ll buy you this video now, but you better clean your room when we get home!”

So, now that we’re clear on the definition, let’s compare the two side-by-side.

Reinforcement: “Great job cleaning your room Jimmy! Would you like to go play your new video game?” vs. Bribe “Here’s your new game, now go clean your room”.

After looking at these two closely, hopefully their differences become more obvious. Another difference is that a consequence of reinforcement is learning. When a person realizes, “Hey, if I do X then good things may follow” then they have learned a new behavior. For example, if we want Jimmy to learn to clean his room the first time we ask, and he knows that he will be able to play a game afterwards, than the chances are more likely that he will continue to follow through with instructions to clean his room. However if he is given a chance to play video games, before cleaning, then the chances are that he will continue to play games and ignore his room. Because, really, what’s his motivation to comply?