Emotional manipulation as a schedule of reinforcement

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It’s easy for us to talk about schedules of reinforcement in terms of bar-pressing rats. And it’s just as easy for us to talk about vending machines and slot machines. The behavior for both rats and humans is largely the same: pressing a button or lever. The reinforcement in these cases is something concrete: food or money. But reinforcement can be other things, too. For example, the praise we get from others, such as our caregivers, friends, and teachers, can be a very powerful reinforcement.

After covering reinforcement in Intro Psych, ask students to work in small groups to identify three to five behaviors that are reinforced by the words or emotional responses of other people. For example, if we tell a joke and people laugh, we are more likely to tell more jokes. If people laugh at dad jokes but not knock-knock jokes, we are more likely to tell more dad jokes. Or if people groan at our dad jokes and we enjoy that response, we are more likely to tell more dad jokes. I’m convinced that people who frequently make puns enjoy the groans, speaking as one who groans at puns.

Washington Post advice columnist Carolyn Hax was asked by a reader, “When I make big life decisions and even some small ones, I wonder, will [my parents] be impressed or disappointed? And I often feel hurt when they don’t offer praise when I’m expecting it. They are extremely judgmental” (Hax, 2024). In Hax’s reply, she writes, “If you were a lab rat, you’d be mashing the reward button all day for two? zero? random cubes of cheese” (Hax, 2024). While lab rats don’t work for cheese, the point holds.

Ask students to read the (gifted to you) Hax column, and answer the following questions:

  1. What behavior of the letter-writer is (occasionally) reinforced by their parents?
  2. What is the reinforcement?
  3. Is the reinforcement given on a fixed or a variable schedule? Explain.
  4. If the letter-writer was on a ratio schedule of reinforcement, what would that mean?
  5. If the letter-writer was on an interval schedule of reinforcement, what would that mean?

If you have covered intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, ask your students these additional questions.

6. Based on the letter, was the letter-writer getting a tattoo intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated? Explain.

7. Based on the letter, is the desire to hide the tattoo from their parents intrinsically motivated or extrinsically motivated? Explain.




Hax, C. (2024, June 10). She’s in her 40s and thriving, yet craves her parents’ approval. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/advice/2024/06/14/carolyn-hax-daughter-craves-parent-approval/




About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.