I don’t need you: Automatic Reinforcement

In the last section, we learned that purposeful actions or accidental actions of another person (i.e. the parent) can reinforce behaviors. Here we cover the fact that behaviors can be reinforced without any help from another person or organism, known as automatic reinforcement. That’s right, you are constantly being exposed to reinforcing stimuli throughout your life and you don’t even know it is happening!

Reinforcement leads to an increase in behavior

Reinforcement is ANY stimulus (thing/feeling/etc) which leads to an increase in the preceding behavior. It does not need to be intentional; nor does it need to be provided by a parent, teacher, boss, etc. Reinforcement can just happen. We determine that it was reinforment because it led to an increase in behavior and not by what we meant for it to do. To try to clarify this, here are some examples:

It is a cool (okay, cold) fall day in Alaska. The sun is shining and my kids are playing outside, following all their rules, cooperating with each other, and cleaning the yard (hey, it’s MY scenario!). I have the door open to let the sun shine in. Suddenly a blast of cold rushes through the open door and contacts my skin. BRRRRRR… I rush to the door and close it. The breeze has been banished to the outside and I am warm yet again. The next time I feel a cold breeze come through my open doorway, I close the door. This allows me to successfully reaching a warm state yet again.

Advocacy Work at Step-In Autism Center
Alaska Step-In Autism Center

In this example, my ‘closing the door’ behavior increases as a result of it successfully taking away the cold breeze stimulus (also an example of negative reinforcement). No one planned on reinforcing me for closing the door. Nobody helped me close the door. No other organism was necessary for that behavior to give me the warmer state that I desired. This is an important aspect of Behavior Analysis since it allows us to understand that ABA does not need to be limited to socially mediated reinforcement. In fact, a good Behavior Analyst sets in motion the skills necessary for his or her clients to gain access to reinforcement for socially appropriate behaviors on their own.

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