Reinforcement or Bribery?

July 5, 2017 No Comments
Ever get tripped up by a parent or colleague asking you the question "isn't that bribery?"  You try to be quick on your feet but end up tongue tied and questioning yourself.  Read about the key differences between reinforcement and bribery.
Did I make you shudder?  Good, I hope so.  You may have encountered a parent or even a coworker that asks you that dreaded question when you explain the concept of reinforcement.  “Isn’t that bribery?”  It can leave even the most well versed and knowledgeable of us dumbfounded.  Maybe you even questioned to yourself, “is this bribery?”
If you happen to fall in the last category, I won’t judge you, I swear!  It’s one of those basic parts of ABA that people really get tripped up by when they first learn about it.  But do know that reinforcement and bribery are not the same.  At all.

The Two Big Differences:

When are you doling out the reward?: Many times, bribes take place before or during a behavior.  You might ask a child “if I buy you ice cream, will you do your homework?”  Or, many will start verbally throwing up all types of reinforcers when they child is acting up.  “I’ll let you play the iPad if you stop ripping up your paper”.
What is the outcome of te reward?: The textbook definition of reinforcement is: a consequence that increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring.  A reinforcer is only reinforcing if the behavior increases.  However, if you are bribing, it is likely the only behavior that is going to increase is the one that lead the student the strongarm you in to giving him that iPad!

 How do I make sure I am not accidentally bribing?

All of us have said the words “if you (do some undesired behavior), then (something the student really loves)” in our time as special educators.  This is a very intentional thing called Premack Principal.  It is based on a theory that if you present a less desirable activity followed by a desirable activity, the undesired is more likely to be engaged in.  Use this BEFORE those behaviors so that you are not intentionally bribing!
Frankly, we all have behavior that is dictated by reinforcement.  We work because we want a paycheck.  We walk in to Target because we want to check out the Dollar Spot.  It’s okay for our students to be reinforced.  We just have to make sure we’re doing it the right way.

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