Learning About Reinforcers (Warning: Snake!)

All About Reinforcers


This gorgeous snake (this is likely an albino boa constrictor, but don’t quote us on that; also, the comments refer to it as a “danger noodle”, which we’re pretty sure is not its Latin name) appears to be enjoying some chin scratches.

All kinds of animals, from mice to elephants, have things that they enjoy. These things can be activities, like scratching, or items, like food, or experiences, like warmth.

You can tell they enjoy these things because they actively seek them out (the snake is not being held in that position, and is willingly keeping its head near the human’s hand), and seek them out in preference to other things. The snake has, say, water and food in that cage but is preferentially hanging out with the human, and is also hanging out with the human rather than wander off into the room.

Enjoyment and it’s role in reinforcing behavior

Another quality of the things we enjoy is that, if we find some behavior that causes those things to happen, we will perform that behavior more and more often.

For example, if the snake enjoys being petted, and finds that hanging over the edge of the tank causes the human to reach out and pet it, the snake will hang over the edge of the tank more often to get some of that awesome petting.

We call things like this “reinforcers” because they “reinforce” — increase the likelihood of — the behaviors that trigger them. Petting is a reinforcer to the snake, and it reinforces the “hanging over the edge of the tank” behavior.

Reinforcers come in all shapes and sizes

Petting is not the only reinforcer. Food is a reinforcer that works for almost every animal. Some foods are more reinforcing than others (ice cream vs. celery), but, in general, everybody pretty much enjoys food, and is willing to engage in behaviors which make food happen.

You do this every day, when you engage in meal-preparation behavior knowing that, at the end, you get to eat what you made! Your dog does this too, when he or she learns that sitting behavior makes you produce a kibble.

The basics of learning

This basic principle of learning (“I enjoy X…doing this thing Y makes X happen…I will do Y more often so X happens more often!”) works with almost every creature on earth, and is a fundamental principle of training. You can learn even more about learning here.

What other behaviors do you think you could ask this snake to do in return for chin scratches? What do you think the snake might do in return for, say, a hamburger? A dead mouse? Your 2013 tax returns?

What reinforcers do you see active in your life? Whether it’s reinforcing for you, your dog, or even your children, share some of those common reinforcers in the comments!