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.
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).