Too often I hear the word "reinforcer" or "reinforcement" used incorrectly.
B.F. Skinner defines reinforcers according to the change in response strength rather than to more subjective criteria, such as what is pleasurable or valuable to someone.
This means we can only define something as a reinforcer if it changes behavior.
Simply said - we know a behavior has been reinforced if it keeps ocurring. No matter how we perceive the consequence, the one who is engaging in the behavior determines the reinforcer.
Stimuli, settings, and activities only fit the definition of reinforcers if the behavior that immediately precedes the potential reinforcer increases in similar situations in the future.
So, when I hear someone tell me, "My kid always mouths off to me. Everytime he does it, I yell at him and send him to his room."
That "every time" is ALREADY telling me that this behavior has been reinforced again and again and again. I know it has because it keeps occurring. Again and again. And again. EVEN if the consequence is yelling. Or getting sent away. EVEN if we perceive the consequence as "aversive"
But how can this be?
Well, we cannot argue with science. We cannot argue with other people, and convince them they SHOULD NOT find a response reinforcing. They just do. And there is nothing we can do about it right away. Usually, we need to deliver a plethora of other reinforcing responses and hopefully the scales tip more in the favor of a more appropriate reinforcer. But that does not happen right away. I always tell people that we cannot determine a reinforcer - we can only identify it. The reinfocer is in the eye of the one who finds it reinforcing.
There is a difference between a reinforcer and a reward. A reward is delivered at the end of the task. We HOPE that the reward will have an impact on the future occurrence of behavior, but there is no guarantee. We only know a reward is acting as a reinforcer the NEXT time the individual has the opportunity to respond to the environment, engage in the behavior, and gain access to the reinforcer.
Science holds no bias. The science of behavior works - for the "good" behaviors and for the "bad" behaviors. It is up to us to manipulate the environment and our responses to the behavior if we want to change it.
Look around you.
The person who dresses provocatively does so because her history of dressing provocatively has been reinforced with other's responses
The person who talks about himself excessively - this behavior has been reinforced
The person who gives up his seat on the subway for another . This behavior has been reinforced.
I could go on and on. The truth is - ALL behavior has been reinforced. We are all behavioral beings who have learned through trial and error, through a long history of reinforcement.