The Power Of Positive Reinforcement

Whether encouraging a friend or partner to reach their goals, or training a dog to sit... positive reinforcement is a key ingredient.

Much research has been undertaken, documenting the potent force of positive words when giving feedback. This handful of results overviews the importance and potential of our words. They can be powerful and simple gifts. (Check out sensory language and metaphor examples to learn more about adding a further punch to your reinforcing statements.)

Research Results On Positive Reinforcement

  • Psychologist BF Skinner was a highly influential American psychologist. He held a post at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.

    Skinner did many studies during his tenure and documented research confirming people would repeat behavior that was immediately reinforced with value. He determined that psychological reinforcement was recognized by people to be of sufficient value to get them to repeat behaviors. This value could be communicated through:

    • praise
    • recognition
    • appreciation
    Basically his findings indicated... if you want someone to do something again, tell them how good they did it the first time!

  • In 1972 Robert and Evelyn Kirkhart did research on the effects of positive reinforcement on children's behavior. They found that children in classrooms thrived when the ratio of feedback was 5 parts positive feedback to 1 part constructive feedback. As the positive sank to 2 parts to 1 part corrective, and further to 1;1... the children's attitude was described as despairing. They also recognized that praise is particularly effective in enhancing learning if it is based on truth:
    • contingent
    • specific
    • sincere
    • credible

  • In the 1990’s Prof John Gottman from the University of Washington, supported Kirkhart's findings, in his research with married couples. He termed this ratio of 5 parts positive feedback to 1 part corrective, the ‘magic ratio’. He noted marriages were considerably more stable if there were five times as many positive feelings and interactions between husband and wife as there were negative.

  • The University of Wisconsin undertook a study of the adult learning process in 1982. They chose to work with bowling teams. Two bowling teams played several games each while the researchers videotaped the games. Then the research team edited the videos. One teams video was edited to show only their mistakes. The other teams video was edited to only leave the good performances on tape. Each team was then shown their respective videos to study, in order to help them improve their performances. After studying the videos, the teams then went back to the bowling lanes and played again.

    The good news is that both teams improved their scores. The great news is that the team that studied their strong points on video improved their game by twice as much as the other that studied only their mistakes. The researches concluded that focusing on the positive helps us tap into:

    • creativity
    • passion
    • the desire to succeed

    Hearing what we did well makes us want to be better, and believe we can be better, and hence we do become better.

    Focusing on the errors was seen to generate feelings of:

    • fatigue
    • blame
    • resistance

    (Source: The CEO’s role in leading transformation / Carolyn B. Aiken and Scott P. Keller / The McKinsey Quarterly)

    Positive Reinforcement For Self

    Reviewing the wonderful effects that positive reinforcement can have on others... doesn't it make sense that the effect is just as powerful on ourselves! Indeed. Enjoy identifying your personal strengths and cultivate your daily practice of positive self talk and positive affirmations.

    "I can live for 2 months on a good compliment."
    Mark Twain


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