Lately I’ve had two invitations to be the guest speaker at prize-giving ceremonies.  Clearly I have reached a stage in life where people think I’m the sort of harmless old buffer who can safely be wheeled out to smile at the camera, shake numerous hands and dish out certificates and/or silver trophies!

Naturally, I do my best to beam at the prize-winners and mutter suitable congratulations whilst my heart quietly bleeds for all those people who, despite their best efforts, have not been singled out for recognition.  Generally speaking, prizes are awarded on the basis of achievement – only rarely on the basis of effort.  When there is a perfect correlation between effort and result, then rewarding results automatically rewards effort.  But, alas, in this unfair world (I know, I know, who said life should be fair?) effort does not come with any guarantees of success.  Nevertheless, I’d be much happier if effort was the criterion regardless of the eventual result.  Meanwhile, we are stuck with results because they are far easier to assess ‘objectively’ than a flakey concept like effort.

I’m not against recognition or rewards – in fact I love them! – but I do worry that too many deserving people are missing out.  In fact, the whole business of rewarding people is far from straightforward.  It isn’t just a question of what behaviour to reward, there is also the issue of what constitutes a reward.  I’m afraid they are very much in the eye of the beholder.  Having your name called out in front of all your peers, and walking up to a raised platform to receive a prize from a dignitary, is a rewarding experience for some people and excruciatingly embarrassing for others. 

Memories of manipulating rewards and punishments to shape the behaviour of rats in mazes come flooding back (rats rather than human beings tended to dominate my three year psychology degree!).  I remember that if you wanted to train a rat to turn right rather than left, it learned faster if you used a combination of reward and punishment (a food pellet when it turned right and an electric shock when it turned left).  The contrast between being punished and rewarded strengthened the attractiveness of the reward.  Rewards on their own would do the trick, but the whole learning process was speeded up if you threw in some punishment into the mix as well.  However, the good news is that rewarded behaviour was longer lasting than punished behaviour.  Rats would carry on turning right long after the rewards they had become used were withdrawn.  

The other major discovery was that intermittent rewards were far more effective than constant ones.  It seems that a bit of uncertainty spices things up – not just for rats but for humans too!  Intermittent reinforcement explains why some people get hooked on gambling; it is the thrill of not knowing whether you will win.  If you never won, or always won, it would be impossible to become a gambler (indeed, the whole concept of gambling would be meaningless!).   The fact that intermittent recognition works best means that we do not have to remember to reward ‘good’ behaviour every single time it occurs.  Every now and again will suffice.

When push come to shove, there are only four strategies for shaping peoples’ behaviour (rats too, come to that).  You can use positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment or extinction.  The first two increase behaviour and the last two decrease behaviour.  The difference between positive and negative reinforcement is that the former is nice when it happens and the latter is nice when it stops.  If, for example, you have a boss who pressurises and nags you to produce a piece of work and this only stops once the work has been produced, your behaviour has been negatively reinforced (and your bosses’ behaviour has been positively reinforced!).

Sadly, if you are like me, you experience too little in the way of positive reinforcement and too much of the other three!  Fascinatingly, I have found that when I write an appreciative note to the Great and the Good – in my case usually to authors, artists and musicians  whose work I have admired – they always write back grateful for the unexpected (and presumably, intermittent!) positive reinforcement.  My conclusion is that even accomplished people, basking in widespread recognition, love a bit of positive reinforcement.  

The late John Piper, for example, despite his fame as an artist (amongst other things he designed the stained glass windows in Coventry Cathedral), and despite my pleas not to bother to reply, wrote back to me ‘Many thanks for your letter.  It gives me a warm and cosy feeling to know that anyone feels those things about my work, none the less warm because it is only very occasionally that I do something that seems to me to deserve even a glimmer of that kind of praise’.


The occasional bit of positive reinforcement is a winner!

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