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  • Writer's pictureElina Halonen

Beyond rewards: navigating the complexities of reinforcement in behaviour change

The common perception of rewards as purely positive incentives, such as a treat for a dog or a bonus for an employee, is an oversimplification of how behaviors are shaped and reinforced. This misunderstanding is particularly prevalent in discussions about habit formation and gamification, so I thought it was time to clarify some common misconceptions surrounding this topic as well as introducing some important nuance.

A spaniel puppy looking at a hand holding a treat
Puppies make anything better, even theoretical articles!

Training spaniels for a decade has shown me that motivation and reinforcement are more complex than just offering rewards. Working with dogs has provided me with a unique lens into applied behavioral science, as it helps distill theoretical concepts to their essence and offers a clearer view of the complex world of human behavior change. Operant conditioning works on everyone, including humans, and has even been shown to improve outcomes when training surgeons (research). It's not a new idea, so if you're interested in learning more, I have book recommendations at the end of the article!

What you'll find in this article:

  • Common misconceptions about rewards and reinforcement

  • Key distinctions between rewards, reinforcers, and incentives

  • Factors influencing the effectiveness of reinforcement strategies

  • Ethical considerations for applying operant conditioning principles

  • Insights for navigating the complexities of reinforcement in behavior change

Let's get started!

Understanding the basics

First, we need to define the relevant terms because understanding these distinctions is critical to apply the principles effectively.

At the heart of behavior modification lies the ABC model, a simple yet powerful framework. It outlines the Antecedents (A) - the cues or triggers for behavior; the Behaviour (B) - the action taken; and the Consequences (C) - the result or reaction to the behaviour. This model emphasizes the interplay between the environment, the individual's actions, and the outcomes that either encourage or discourage the repetition of the behaviour.

Contingencies, closely related to the ABC model, refer to the if-then conditions that determine the consequences of a behaviour - in other words, the relationship between a specific action and its outcome. This concept is essential for designing effective reinforcement strategies, ensuring that the consequences of actions are clearly and logically connected to those actions, thereby influencing behaviour patterns.

Distinguishing between rewards, incentives, and reinforcement

In discussions about behavior modification, it's crucial to differentiate between rewards, reinforcers, and incentives. Their distinct roles in shaping behavior have often been conflated, leading to a fundamental misunderstanding of how effective behavior change is achieved.

Rewards are given after a behaviour has occurred, serving as recognition or acknowledgment of that behavior. They are retrospective, acknowledging actions that have already been completed. For example, a bonus received at the end of a successful project is a reward.

In contrast, incentives are future-oriented. They are promises or expectations set before the behavior occurs, intended to motivate the behavior. For instance, a sales target with a bonus for reaching it serves as an incentive, motivating future effort.

Rewards ≠ reinforcement

While rewards are typically seen as positive and, by their name, "rewarding," this does not guarantee they will effectively encourage the repetition of the behaviour they follow. The common connotation of rewards as universally "good" or motivating overlooks the subjective nature of what is considered rewarding by different individuals. The misunderstanding arises when rewards do not always work as expected to modify behaviour. Not all rewards are reinforcing because their effectiveness hinges on the individual's perception and the relevance to the desired behaviour.

Key terms:

  • Reinforcement (R) is a process that increases the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated: it is about strengthening a behaviour by making it more frequent or probable in the future, contingent upon the presentation of a reinforcer following that behaviour.

  • Positive Reinforcement (R+) involves adding (+) something desirable following a behavior to encourage its repetition (e.g., praise after completing a task).

  • Negative Reinforcement (R-) involves removing (-) an undesirable stimulus in response to a behavior to encourage that behavior (e.g., turning off an annoying alarm). It's crucial to distinguish negative reinforcement from punishment; while the former encourages a behaviour by removing negative stimuli, punishment aims to decrease or stop a behaviour.

Key insight 1: Reinforcement is more complex than commonly perceived

Reinforcement goes beyond the simple act of giving a reward. It involves a nuanced understanding of behaviours and their consequences, rooted in the principles of operant conditioning. Both positive and negative reinforcements play crucial roles in shaping desired behaviours, highlighting the complexity of reinforcement.

Key insight 2: Understanding the distinction between rewards, reinforcers and incentives is vital

Clarifying the concepts of rewards, reinforcers, and incentives is essential for designing effective behaviour change interventions. Misunderstanding these distinctions can result in strategies that fail to effectively motivate or reinforce desired behaviours.

Why reinforcement might not work

Reinforcement is a powerful tool for shaping behaviour, but it requires customization. To effectively motivate and reinforce desired behaviors, consider the individual's unique needs, preferences, and context. Understanding the nuances of individual needs, context, and the timing and consistency of reinforcement is crucial for success.

We'll now explore why reinforcement may not always yield the expected results, emphasizing the importance of customizing strategies to individual needs and contexts. We'll also highlight the crucial roles of timing and consistency in the success of these strategies.

To keep the examples simple and relatable, I've included dog training scenarios in the boxes. Since many people also have dogs, hopefully this approach allows you to use your imagination and extrapolate the principles to your own unique context - making the concepts more accessible and applicable, and to lighten up a theoretical article with disapproving spaniel faces. There is also a long table of examples at the end of the post.

Reinforcer characteristics

Reinforcement success depends on the reinforcer's characteristics, as one size does not fit all. For effective behavior motivation and shaping, the reinforcer must be tailored to the individual's unique needs, preferences, and the context of the desired behavior.

Examples of reinforcer characteristics in dog context
Examples of reinforcer characteristics in dog context

Value mismatch: The reinforcement isn't inherently valuable or meaningful to the recipient. If the reinforcer doesn't align with the individual's needs, preferences, or values, it won't effectively motivate the desired behaviour.

Satiation: The individual has had enough of the reinforcer, diminishing its effectiveness. Just as a dog may lose interest in treats if given too many, humans can become "full" of a particular reinforcer, reducing its motivational power.

Intensity/magnitude of reinforcement: The reinforcer is too weak relative to the effort required to perform the desired behaviour. If the perceived effort outweighs the reward, motivation will wane.

Contextual influences

The environment surrounding an individual significantly impacts the effectiveness of reinforcement strategies. Beyond the reinforcer's characteristics, the broader context of behaviour modification contains variables that can enhance or hinder reinforcement success.

Examples of contextual influences in dog context
Examples of contextual influences in dog context

Competing reinforcers: There are more attractive or immediate reinforcers available that distract from or outweigh the intended reinforcer. In complex environments, individuals may encounter multiple competing stimuli or rewards, leading them to choose behaviours that aren't the target of the intervention.

Environmental constraints: External factors may limit the effectiveness of a reinforcement strategy. In human contexts, this could include organizational policies or cultural norms that inhibit the desired behaviour change.

Emotional state: The current emotional or physiological state of the individual can impact the effectiveness of reinforcers. Stress, anxiety, or other emotional states might diminish the appeal or attention to potential reinforcers

Timing and consistency

The impact of reinforcement on behaviour is significantly influenced by the timing of its delivery and the consistency of its application. Achieving desired behaviour change requires more than just choosing the right reinforcer; it demands a strategic approach to when and how often reinforcement is presented.

Examples of timing and consistency in dog context
Examples of timing and consistency in dog context

Poor timing: The reinforcement is not delivered closely enough in time to the desired behavior. If too much time elapses between the behaviour and the reinforcer, the connection between them may not be established.

Inconsistent application: Reinforcement is not applied consistently, leading to confusion about which behaviours are being reinforced. Consistency is key in establishing clear behavioural expectations.

Learning history and contingencies

It's also important to consider how past experiences and learning encounters shape an individual's responses to reinforcement strategies. Understanding the role of a person's learning history, the clarity of behavioural expectations, and the alignment between expectations and outcomes can can influence behaviourehavior changes.

Examples of learning history in dog context
Examples of learning history in dog context

Conditioning history: Previous learning experiences can affect the effectiveness of a reinforcer. If an individual has learned in other contexts that certain behaviours are not followed by positive outcomes, they may be less responsive to new reinforcement attempts.

Unmet expectations and frustration: The discrepancy between expected and received reinforcement can lead to frustration, and subsequently have a negative impact on the learning process or the future effectiveness of reinforcement strategies.

Ambiguous contingencies: The relationship between behaviour and reinforcement is unclear. If the individual cannot clearly see how their actions lead to outcomes, the reinforcement process is undermined

Overjustification effect: Introducing external rewards for a behavior that was already intrinsically rewarding can sometimes reduce a person's intrinsic motivation to perform that behaviour, making it less likely to occur in the absence of the reward.

I've focused on the reasons why reinforcement might not work because it offers general insights into how to do things better. However, there is a lot more detail to understand in e.g. reinforcement schedules and other aspects of learning theory, but they will need a separate post!

Key insight 3: The effectiveness of rewards depends on individual needs and context: 

A one-size-fits-all approach to rewards can lead to ineffective outcomes. The value of a reward or reinforcer is highly individualized, depending on personal preferences, emotional states, and the specific context in which the behaviour occurs.

Key insight 4: Timing and consistency are crucial for reinforcement to be effective: 

The impact of reinforcement on behaviour change is significantly influenced by how timely and consistently the reinforcement is applied. Poor timing and inconsistent application can weaken the connection between behaviour and its consequences, reducing the likelihood of achieving the desired behaviour change.

Ethical guidelines for applying operant conditioning

A thorough understanding of operant conditioning principles not only boosts the effectiveness of behavior change strategies but also empowers practitioners to apply these strategies ethically. By acknowledging the potential pitfalls and unintended consequences of reinforcement, we can develop solutions that prioritize the well-being and autonomy of the individuals we aim to support. The following ethical considerations, organized into three themes, are crucial for aligning our practice with the core principles of operant conditioning:

  • Respect for individual autonomy and informed consent: uphold the individual's right to self-determination, respect their autonomy, and ensure they understand the reinforcement strategies being used. Obtain informed consent, be sensitive to cultural backgrounds, and respect personal differences.

  • Beneficence and nonmaleficence: fulfill the ethical obligation to promote the individual's well-being and avoid causing harm. Strive to benefit the individual while minimizing risks, avoid misapplication of reinforcement strategies, monitor emotional responses, and consider long-term impact and sustainability.

  • Clarity and transparency in reinforcement strategies: maintain open communication and clear expectations when implementing reinforcement strategies. Clearly communicate reinforcement criteria and desired outcomes, and ensure ethical use of positive reinforcement without creating overdependence or neglecting intrinsic motivation.

If these ethical considerations seem far removed from your perceptions of dog training, I encourage you to delve into the articles I've written on the subject (here and here). These pieces explore the spectrum of dog training philosophies, contrasting traditional, compliance-based methods with more modern, partnership-based approaches that emphasize mutual respect, understanding, and empathy. The broader ethical principles discussed in these articles, such as respecting autonomy, fostering collaboration, and prioritizing well-being, are not only relevant to dog training but also have significant implications for human behavior change.

Examining dog training philosophies provides valuable insights into the ethical considerations that should guide our approach to behaviour modification in various contexts. By recognizing the individual as a sentient being with unique needs, preferences, and emotions, we can develop more effective and sustainable interventions that prioritize the well-being of all involved. Ultimately, embracing an ethical framework grounded in respect, empathy, and understanding fosters harmonious relationships and creates an environment conducive to positive growth and change.

Key insight 5: A deep understanding of operant conditioning principles enhances behaviour change strategies

By applying a well-informed approach based on operant conditioning, we can use reinforcement strategies to encourage desired behaviours more effectively and more ethically. By recognising the ways in which reinforcement can fail as well as backfire, we can create interventions that work for everyone.


Reinforcement, when grounded in a deep understanding of operant conditioning principles and ethical application, can be a powerful tool for shaping behavior. By considering individual needs, context, timing, and consistency, we can tailor reinforcement strategies to each unique situation.

Emphasizing respect for autonomy, beneficence, and transparency ensures our interventions prioritize the well-being and dignity of those we support.

By embracing reinforcement's complexity and ethical responsibilities, we can create positive change in various contexts, fostering environments that encourage growth, empathy, and understanding for more effective and sustainable behavior change strategies.


Want to learn more?


More examples of why reinforcement might not work



Dog Example

Human Example

Reinforcer Characteristics

Value Mismatch

The reinforcer doesn't hold inherent value for the recipient.

A dog doesn't perform tricks for a type of treat it doesn't like.

An employee is unmotivated by a bonus because they prefer recognition over monetary rewards.


The recipient has experienced too much of the reinforcer, reducing its appeal.

After receiving too many treats, the dog loses interest in performing for more.

A worker becomes indifferent to the end-of-year bonus after receiving it several years in a row.

Intensity or Magnitude

The strength or size of the reinforcer is insufficient to motivate behavior.

A small piece of a regular kibble might not motivate a behavior that requires significant effort.

A minimal salary increase is insufficient to motivate employees in demanding job roles.

Contextual Influences

Competing Reinforcers

Alternatives are available that are more appealing than the intended reinforcer.

A dog prefers chasing squirrels in the park over coming when called, despite the promise of treats.

An employee might prefer flexible working hours over a financial bonus.

Environmental Constraints

External conditions or barriers limit the effectiveness of the reinforcement strategy.

A loud construction site nearby makes a dog too anxious to respond to training commands.

Organizational policies that restrict remote working can limit the effectiveness of incentives for increased productivity.

Emotional State

The individual's current psychological or physiological state affects responsiveness to reinforcers.

A dog that is scared or stressed during a thunderstorm is less likely to respond to positive reinforcement.

An employee going through personal issues may be less responsive to workplace incentives or rewards.

Timing and Consistency

Poor Timing

The reinforcement is not delivered closely enough in time to the desired behavior.

A treat is given to a dog long after it has followed a cue, making it hard for the dog to associate the treat with the behavior.

A bonus is awarded to an employee months after the completion of a project, reducing its impact as a motivator for future projects.

Inconsistent Application

Reinforcement is not applied consistently, leading to confusion about which behaviors are being reinforced.

A dog receives a treat when coming back to owner only occasionally but not always, leading to erratic behavior.

A manager praises an employee for punctuality sporadically, which does not effectively encourage consistent punctuality.

Learning History and Contingencies

Conditioning History

Past experiences influence the current effectiveness of the reinforcer.

A dog previously scolded  for coming when called may hesitate, even if now rewarded for it.

An employee who has been criticized in the past for taking initiative may be reluctant to do so, even when now encouraged and rewarded.

Ambiguous Contingencies

Unclear connection between behavior and reinforcement.

If a dog is sometimes given treats for sitting and sometimes for staying, it may become confused about what is being reinforced.

A team member is unsure whether their bonus is for team performance or individual achievement, leading to uncertainty about what behaviors are rewarded.

Overjustification Effect

External rewards might reduce intrinsic motivation for a behavior that was already rewarding.

A dog that enjoys playing fetch may lose interest if it starts receiving treats every time it brings back the ball.

A student who loves reading for pleasure may start reading less if they begin to be rewarded with money for every book finished.


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