Using Positive Reinforcement to Create Change

As indoor cycling instructors we like to think of ourselves as agents of change. Our goal is to help the people in our classes make shifts in their form, fitness, and mental outlook. The privilege of seeing those changes is what keeps many of us in a somewhat challenging industry. But I don’t think instructors are using all of the tools available to them to effect change. This article will present a very basic explanation of the ways to use the principles of operant conditioning, specifically positive reinforcement, to expedite many kinds of change.

Antecedent → Behavior → Consequences

This model might be familiar to you from your introductory psychology classes. It describes three items which should be observed during behavior change. The antecedent(s) are the stimuli or situations that precede behavior. Consequence(s) are those events which immediately follow the behavior. As instructors we spend a lot of time thinking about the antecedents. We analyze everything from the reasons that students arrive in class to our own cueing and methods of instruction. We may also address ultimate consequences—things like increased fitness and mental attitudes. But I think that we neglect the proximate consequences, those that occur in the very short period following the end of the behavior. Our role gives us some control over those consequences, and used properly that control can have an amazing impact on the course of change.

What is Positive Reinforcement?

B. F. Skinner was the first to describe the principle of reinforcement. He observed that a behavior will increase in frequency if the consequence is a positive reinforcer. Note that the term “positive reinforcement” is widely used but is often misunderstood. In this context, positive simply means the addition of something to the environment. Reinforcer means something that the organism likes. In contrast, negative reinforcement describes the withdrawal of something the organism likes. The flip side of reinforcement is punishment—a decrease in the frequency of a specific behavior. Positive punishment is the delivery of something which will decrease the frequency of a behavior (e.g., spanking a child for writing on the wall).


2 Responses to “Using Positive Reinforcement to Create Change”

  1. Vivienne Naylor says:

    Christine…..a hearty thank you. You’ve effected behaviour change in me 😉

    Class members at this gym (not just my classes) are very cavalier about time keeping and the same few people will drift in anywhere up to 10 minutes late. I’ve even had the experience of cutting my losses with zero attendance close to the 15 minute in mark, clearing up …… and, on the way out of the studio, bumping into the first of about 5 or 6 folk who eventually showed up. FWIW, that changed things temporarily.

    I’ve begun to start my music bang on time, bums in the saddle or no and totally disregarding the stragglers (having made sure there were no newbies, of course) I’ve been a late comer to this strategy as I use the 10 minutes or so warm up to do safety check reminders and outline class objectives etc. etc and it was getting a bit irksome when the same folk would ask the same *what’re we doing now* type of questions. I felt sort of like a snarky bytch (since that was exactly why I was behaving this way) when I began to not acknowledge a late arrival or suggest that if they didn’t know where they were in a profile to ask the person next to them who’d arrived in time to get the route map (well, yeah, can’t dress that snark up in a positive way)

    So, having read this article last week, I set myself the task of thinking along the lines you outline. A whole new experience for me. Who knew I’d stumbled onto operant conditioning techniques when I thought I was just being pissy. I guess you have to change yourself before you can change others. It’d be interesting to see if my changed mindset produced any observable changes in my demeanour and attitude..

    • Christine Nielsen says:

      Vivienne – It is good to hear that you might be able to run with some of these ideas. Good for you for making the commitment to start on time. Holding your music or explanations for the latecomers just reinforces that behaviour and punishes those who were on time. I make a point of giving another short intro to the work of the day just before the end of the warmup. That means that I am never tempted to directly address the people who have missed the first explanation.

      I didn’t have space to address an important feature of learning that may crop up when you begin to ignore an unwanted behaviour while waiting for one that you want to see increase in frequency. Sometimes you will see an extinction burst – an increase in terms of intensity, frequency or duration of the undesired behaviour. If you know it is coming you can wait and pounce with a reinforcer for just about anything when it is over. I am always happy to see extinction bursts – they are evidence that my behaviour is changing someone else’s.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *