Police Psychology | The Schedule is the Key
by Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
We all like being rewarded for the things we do. I mean, who wouldn’t want a sticker on your chart, or an ice cream cone, or a salary raise, every time you do something good? In this article, we are going to explore operant conditioning and how you can get meaning out of it in your job as a first responder.
Operant conditioning relies on something called the Law of Effect, which states that a response will increase if followed by a positive consequence and decrease if followed by a negative consequence. Pretty simple! There are two main “consequences” out there: reinforcement, which is consequences that increase the rate with which you will respond the desired way, and punishment, which are consequences that decrease the rate of responding. Both of these include positive (add a stimulus) and negative (remove a stimulus) options, so we really have four possibilities: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. We’re going to leave punishment for a later article, let’s deal with just reinforcement. Now how you use reinforcement is the reason that many call it the secret to controlling others?
To illustrate, let’s say a parent wants their child to clean their room (assuming the child is obviously following through on entropy and letting their life reach a disorganized state). They can say they will give the child 50 cents for every toy they pick up (positive reinforcement—the addition of a stimulus increases the behavior), or they can keep nagging the child to clean the room, and so the kids clean the room just to shut the parents up (negative reinforcement—the removal of a stimulus increases the behavior). Now once the room is clean, the parents don’t want the room to get messy again so they could spank the child every time they leave toys out (positive punishment—the addition of a stimulus to decrease behavior, (and these politically correct days line you up for a Child Protective Service violation), or they could take away their child’s phone or computer if they leave their room a mess (negative punishment—removal of a stimulus to decrease behavior) which also leaves you open for some positive punishment that only an unhappy child can wreak on a parent. Now that’s the basics, let’s go further to find the utility for a first responder….
Schedule of Reinforcement
Schedules of reinforcement can really help automate positive behavior. There are two main schedules of reinforcement. The first one is continuous reinforcement, where you reward someone every single time they do the desired activity. This is real good for starting a behavior or a habit. For example, if you are trying to establish a source for information, an informant, you might want to reward him each and every time he gives you something at first. This gets him knowing that if he is going to give you good information, you will give him something. Once the behavior is established you move him to a different kind of schedule.
The other schedule of reinforcement is intermittent reinforcement. There are four further schedules of intermittent reinforcement. Fixed-ratio is when the number of responses needed to receive reinforcement stays the same. This could mean rewarding someone every time they write ten tickets or catch five DWI’s. Fixed-interval is when the time to receive reinforcement stays the same after a fixed period. For example, you reward after 5 days on task with looking for DWI’s. Variable-ratio is when the number of responses needed to receive reinforcement changes, but will average out overall. A classic example of this is a slot machine—you never know when you will be rewarded, but it is dependant on your input (pulling the lever), and there will always be a winner after an average number of pulls. This is the most powerful schedule of reinforcement because it gives people the illusion of control, when in fact it is really variable. I know I keep telling people bad luck is random and will always turn around, but the house always wins in this case. The last schedule of reinforcement is variable-interval. This is when the time to receive reinforcement changes, but will average out in the end. This is seen when you check for mail delivery every day, or when you bake cookies: on average it comes or is ready after a certain time, but each day it will be slightly different.
The problem with variable schedules of reinforcement is if the period of time is too long between when a person does the act and gets a reinforcement it doesn’t work anymore. This is the problem a lot of bosses have. They concentrate so often on clearing things up that need to be fixed, they forget to give positive feedback and all the reinforcement chains that they have established are broken. So essentially they don’t have any influence over the people that work under them, then they complain that people aren’t doing their job.
Reinforcement in Your Life
Now the most powerful of all the schedules is the variable ratio. If we are playing golf, or any other sport, and we get a few good shots, we become encouraged to keep playing because, though we don’t know when we will get another perfect shot, we know it’ll come eventually if we keep playing. This is using a variable-ratio schedule to reinforce our own behavior!
My brother is a contester. He enters ten to fifteen contests a day, and yeah he wins occasionally, actually often. Christmas at the Aumiller’s is a testament to his winnings as trampolines appear coming from his contests, to IPAD, IPODS, trips to where ever, and he even called me up once and asked if I wanted to play drums on stage with Shania Twain, yes somehow he won a chance to be on stage with Shania Twain in her sexy loveliness. Despite being single at the time, I didn’t go because of another commitment, but I fantasized uh, thought about it. I also thought being an older man onstage with Shania Twain would not be the best thing for me. My brother won in one of the first few contests he entered, and started filling out contest submission after contest submission, which of course gave him more wins. If he hadn’t won for his first three or four years, he may have quit, but he won and so started the cycle of filling in 3 x 5 cards for contests. That is a perfect model for you in making better cops, or firemen or psychologists.
So here’s the key or tip I will give you today. Whether you are starting a task force, trying to increase productivity, or starting a brain trust, start with a continuous reinforcement. Compliment each and every new idea, or arrest, or increase over what you had in the past. After that, reinforce on a time schedule. Tell the guys or girls they did a good job last week, or last ten days. Buy the staff a meal after a week of good work. That will encourage those who are not doing their share to maybe pick it up a little. Finally, go on to giving out rewards for a certain number of arrests, or a certain amount of productivity or a certain quality to their thoughts, just make sure the number is unknown to the people getting the rewards. Vary it so they never know when they will get the rewards. You have created the perfect situation for getting what you want from your staff. Now just maintain them on an occasional variable rate reward schedule and you are there.
So my brother won an all-expenses paid trip to Berlin, staying at the best hotel in the city. He won a chance to have a cooking lesson with Paula Dean before she was tainted, and he is constantly winning awards show tickets. Last Christmas my wife got a Kindle, my kid got a bunch of games and teddy bears and things that made her happy, and I got a plastic “play-golf-on-the-toilet set” with a putter and plastic balls to hit while answering nature’s call.
The morale to the story: “Never turn down Shania Twain or you could be left with toilet golf.” I’ll have to remember that one.
Site Editor: Gary S. Aumiller, Ph.D. ABPP
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