Bribery Vs. Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is one of the most important tools in our ABA toolbox. It is an effective, evidence-based strategy that we often use to teach new skills or strengthen existing ones. When first introduced, reinforcement can often be confused for bribery. At first glance, reinforcement and bribery may appear similar to one another since both involve the delivery of something of value to increase the likelihood of a preferred behaviour. However, there is an important distinction between bribery and reinforcement that can be better understood when we break down some of their key differences:

1. When is it delivered?

Reinforcement involves earning a reward following a preferred behaviour. This means that

reinforcement can be planned ahead of time and delivered with praise. In contrast, bribes are typically given in response to a challenging behaviour. Consequently, they are often delivered in frustration and can create undesirable patterns in behaviour that are difficult to break (i.e., challenging behaviour followed by bribes for compliance). In other words, reinforcement is proactive, whereas bribery is reactive.

2. What are the long-term effects?

While bribery may alter or stop a challenging behaviour in the moment, it is unlikely to create change over time. Reinforcement, when delivered consistently and appropriately, can increase, strengthen and maintain positive changes in behaviour.

3. Who is in control?

Since bribery is reactive in nature, the child tends to be in control as negotiations are being made in exchange for compliance. When delivering reinforcement, an adult is in control since they are able to decide when a reward has been earned.

To help clarify this distinction further, consider the following example: It’s dinner time and your family has sat down together to eat a meal. Your child is seated at the table with you, however they are refusing to eat any of their food until the T.V. is turned on so they can watch a cartoon:

Bribe: “Ok, but if I turn on the T.V. you have to eat your food”. Parent turns on the television

and their child begins to eat their dinner.

In this scenario, the response is reactive, and child-led since the reinforcer was delivered

in response to a challenging behaviour. This does not create an opportunity for parents to

strengthen good meal-time behaviours in the future and may unintentionally lead to

similar challenging behaviours in the future.

Reinforcement: Parent tells child that in order to watch T.V., they must first take 3 bites of their dinner. The parent will only turn on the television once they have taken 3 bites of food.

In the reinforcement scenario, there is a contingency in place because the child must eat

their bites of dinner in order for the T.V. to be turned on. Here, the parent is in control of

the situation. Future goals may include increasing the number of bites required to access the T.V. until eventually the child can access the T.V. following dinner.

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