The Law of Effect: How Consequences Influence Behavior & Why Rewarding Yourself Doesn’t Motivate

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The Law of Effect: How Consequences Influence Behavior & Why Rewarding Yourself Doesn’t Motivate

Why Self-Motivation Should be Abandoned for Drive Fulfillment

Have you ever promised yourself a treat or any reward for finishing a task, only to find yourself losing interest or motivation along the way? Perhaps this method worked a few times then failed in a loss of value for the reward. You are not alone. Many people use rewards as a way to motivate themselves to do things they don’t enjoy or find difficult. However, research shows that rewarding yourself doesn’t work as well as you might think. In fact, it can have some negative consequences for you. Perhaps it is time to rethink motivation as the means to better performance and well-being.

The Science of Rewards: The Law of Effect & Conditioning

To understand why rewarding yourself is not an effective means of motivation we must delve into the key concepts of the Law of Effect and the theory of operant conditioning, as well as highlight the differences between Thorndike's theory and B.F. Skinner's work to illustrate how self-motivation tactics prove ineffective.

The Law of Effect

The Law of Effect, proposed by psychologist Edward Thorndike, is a fundamental principle of learning that explores how behavior is influenced by its consequences. This principle significantly impacted the field of psychology, particularly in the development of behaviorism.

The Law of Effect states that behaviors followed by satisfying consequences are more likely to be repeated, while those followed by discomforting consequences are less likely to be repeated. This principle emphasizes the role of positive and negative outcomes in shaping behavior.

Thorndike’s experiment with puzzle boxes may be familiar to you, as it illustrates one of the mechanisms of motivation in behaviorism. To study the Law of Effect, Thorndike conducted experiments using puzzle boxes and animals, particularly cats. He observed that when placed in a puzzle box, cats would experiment with different actions to escape and reach a reward, such as a piece of fish. Over time, the cats learned that pressing a lever would open the box, leading to a favorable outcome. This behavior became increasingly quick and efficient with repeated trials.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect had a profound influence on the field of comparative psychology. It provided a framework for understanding how animals learn and adapt their behavior based on the consequences they experience. This principle paved the way for further research and theories in the field, most notably operant and classical conditioning.

Operant & Classical Conditioning

B.F. Skinner, a prominent psychologist, built upon Thorndike’s work and developed the theory of operant conditioning. While the Law of Effect focused on the relationship between behavior and consequences, operant conditioning introduced the concepts of reinforcement (both positive and negative) and punishment to explain how consequences shape behavior.

There are two forms of conditioning: classical and operant conditioning. Both of these types of conditioning are fundamental concepts to behavioral science because they provide a practical and testable area of psychology applicable to behavior as well as learning. Conditioning has been studied and advanced by many different researchers, but most notably by Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner.

Operant and classical conditioning are often misunderstood concepts. Many laypersons believe conditioning is a simple act of reward and punishment. This view is erroneous, as the process of conditioning is far more complex. There are important differences between operant and classical conditioning that show the complexity of these processes and ultimately why they fail in the context of self-reward.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov was the first researcher to describe classical conditioning. After studying dogs, Pavlov discovered that ringing a bell before food is provided, the dogs learned to respond to the bell by salivating in anticipation of the food. Pavlov learned that classical conditioning consists of four basic elements. The first element of classical conditioning is the unconditioned stimulus. This stimulus is used to produce the second element which is the unconditioned response. In Pavlov’s experiments, the unconditioned stimulus (food) was presented to the dog which resulted in the production of saliva which is the unconditioned response. The third element of classical conditioning is the incorporation of the neutral stimulus prior to the unconditioned response. Consistent and frequent pairing of the neutral stimulus and unconditioned stimulus, results in the conditioned response which is the fourth element of conditioning (salivation at the sound of the bell). Pavlov showed that dogs learned to associate the ringing of a bell with food, which caused a conditioned response of salivation even if food was not presented.

Because classical conditioning focuses on involuntary behaviors, this could be used to reduce certain habitual behaviors such as nail chewing or drug use. This would involve the placement of a neutral signal before a habitual behavior such as ringing a bell. The person could be given something unpleasant such as foul-tasting food which could be associated with the habit. After repeated pairing of the foul-tasting food with the ringing of the bell, a natural reflex should develop in which the person remembers the taste when he or she hears the bell. This could be used to stop a behavior by ringing a bell whenever the person starts to behave a certain way such as biting their nails2.

In contrast to classical conditioning, operant conditioning focuses on strengthening or weakening certain behaviors through the application of reinforcement or punishment after the behavior. B.F. Skinner believed that learned behaviors are triggered by outside stimuli by means of reinforcement, punishment and rewards. Within the framework of operant conditioning, reinforcements are positive or negative. Positive reinforcement is a form of reward or praise for behaving in a specific manner. Negative reinforcement is the withholding of a reward or praise for improper behavior. Punishment is often seen as a form of negative reinforcement but this is a misunderstood area of conditioning. The point of conditioning is to reinforce good or desired behaviors. According to Skinner, punishment is considered a detractor from reinforcement.

Skinner believed that reinforcement was a means of shaping behaviors. Punishment weakens behaviors because it does not provide a positive association with the desired behavior. This idea works due to the fact that when a desired behavior is performed , a positive association is made through the reinforcement, but with punishment there is no reinforcement but instead an undesirable outcome which can have the effect of stopping a behavior but does nothing to reinforce a good behavior. For example, a child who is drawing on a wall with a crayon may be taught to stop this behavior by rewarding the child when he or she draws on paper. The withholding of the reward or praise when the child draws on the wall reinforces the behavior of drawing on paper. In contrast to this scenario, punishment may teach the child to stop drawing on the wall but does not reinforce the good behavior of drawing on paper. As such , this detracts from learning because the child may be apt to draw on a table or on a different wall.

As a final important piece to the motivation puzzle, we must understand the concept of forgetting and extinction in operant conditioning. Forgetting refers to a decrease in the strength of a behavior over time when it has not been emitted. For example, if a rat has been trained to press a lever to receive food, but is then removed from that environment, the rat may “forget” the behavior. However, the behavior can be reinstated when the rat is reintroduced to the environment where pressing the lever leads to a reward.

Extinction refers to a decrease in the strength of a behavior due to a lack of reinforcement over time. For example, if a child has been rewarded for doing homework, but stops receiving rewards as he or she grows older, the child may lose interest or motivation in doing homework. However, the behavior can be restored if the child receives reinforcement again.

Forgetting and extinction are both processes that can affect learned behaviors, but they have different causes and mechanisms. Forgetting occurs when a behavior is not practiced or performed for a long time, while extinction occurs when a behavior is no longer reinforced or rewarded. Forgetting can be reversed by relearning or reinstating the behavior, while extinction can be reversed by restoring or increasing the reinforcement.

Key Differences between the Law of Effect & Operant Conditioning

• The Law of Effect emphasizes the influence of satisfying and discomforting consequences on behavior, while operant conditioning incorporates reinforcement and punishment as mechanisms for modifying behavior.

• Reinforcement: Operant conditioning expands on the Law of Effect by detailing how behaviors that are reinforced are strengthened, while those that are punished are weakened.

• Punishment: Operant conditioning distinguishes between positive and negative punishment, while the Law of Effect does not specify the type or nature of the discomforting consequence.

• Extinction: Operant conditioning explains how behaviors can be reduced or eliminated by removing the reinforcement or punishment, while the Law of Effect does not account for this process.

Why Rewarding Yourself Undermines Motivation

There are many reasons why self-rewarding fails to motivate us. In a Psychology Today article, Why We Shouldn’t Reward Ourselves for Good Habits, author Gretchen Rubin defines a variety of reasons why self-reward is not just ineffective but damaging to motivation.

• Rewards can undermine the intrinsic motivation of doing an activity for its own sake, and make it seem like a chore or a burden.

• Rewards can create a finish line effect, where people stop doing the activity once they achieve the goal or get the reward.

• Rewards can interfere with the decision-making and self-control processes that are essential for habit formation.

• Rewards can create an opt-out option, where people can avoid doing the activity if they don’t want the reward.

• Rewards can teach people that they only do the activity for external reasons, not for their own values or interests.

These reasons carry a great deal of merit and hint at a deeper flaw beyond mere laziness or disinterest, which is a flaw in the comprehension of motivation. The self-reward does not work reliably because it is a hypothetical circumstance with risk. In simplest terms, you have nothing to lose by not being motivated and simply rewarding yourself. Whatever stimulus motivates you; it must be real and have value. If you promise yourself a night out on the town after a successful work project, you have no skin in the game because you can simply go out one night regardless of the project’s outcome. This scenario is different than a monetary bonus promised by an external force or the desire to finish the project because you love what you do and want the work to succeed.

Another more vital reason self-motivation does not work comes from the application of the conditioning motivation being applied to the wrong situation. In all of the tests performed, in the preceding discussion, there were subjects (animals). Their responses were considered involuntary and as such applying conditioning to voluntary behavior, especially in a human subject that is capable of understanding what you are trying to do, is unlikely to work – unless the motivation stimulus is something they value. For this reason, no reinforcement, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, works on people reliably because you are attempting to reinforce voluntary behavior, and not being an animal, the subject is completely aware of your intention to control their behavior. More to the point, this type of motivation will not work in self-motivation because you are completely aware of the circumstance and the stimuli, both of which you can control.

When perceived through this lens, we must question what is self-motivation? Clearly, people are motivated to do or not do things, such as people are motivated to work because they enjoy their job, want to pay their bills, etc. If motivation is always inspired by extrinsic means, self-motivation becomes a misnomer and misclassification in the theories of motivation. Instead of trying to motivate ourselves, we should seek Drive Fulfillment.

Drive Fulfillment

In Drive Fulfillment we do not attempt to motivate ourselves to do tasks, we instead attempt to accomplish desires and needs.

Drive Fulfillment might appear as a restatement of motivation but it is not because we know motivation is based on external stimulus. Exemplifying this difference are the many examples that we see all around us. The person who complains about being broke may honestly have a desire to make money but has no method or plan for that Drive Fulfillment. Many refer to that person as lazy but are they lazy or are they not driven to make money by the means they have tried or been offered?

The answer to this question holds profound implications as this means many may simply not desire to work in the capacity society has provided them. Is an actress lazy and performs her job in a lackadaisical manner because she doesn’t want to wait tables, or is she simply trapped in Drive Unfulfillment? If we are all attempting Drive Fulfillment, then is it fair to say she and others like her are lazy when society, economics, individuals, and other factors define the necessity, scarcity, or abundance of work in particular fields?

This and many other questions are outside the scope of this article but what is most important to understand is the consideration that there is no such thing as self-motivation. Whether classical or operant conditioning, the Law of Effect is present and reveals that motivation conditions are always externalized, meaning “behaviors followed by satisfying consequences” and vice versa, must have some form of stimulus to create the response. Understanding this**,** we should, instead of trying to find means to make ourselves desire to perform, be listing our desires and strategizing the most practical and efficient means to fulfill them. (Don’t work a shitty job because it pays well while you are saving to open your business. Instead, find a more desirable shitty job or a shortcut to your enterprise.) Self-motivation is task oriented and Drive Fulfillment requires no motivation tactic because desire is inherent and when fulfilled, we are happy and satisfied.

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