why positive reinforcement works

Over the weekend, my husband and I met with a new dog trainer (if you follow me on Instagram, you know that Riley is a bit of a trouble maker, but he sure is a cute one!).  Her approach was rooted in positive reinforcement … so much so, that she doesn’t even recommend saying “no” to the dogs, but rather recommends distracting them, encouraging a new, positive behavior, and celebrating that.  Though we have been through several approaches with Riley (and even sent him away to 2 weeks of “school”), this approach has already worked wonders in the two days since the training class.

As I reflected on this, it hit me … “of course that works!!  Positive reinforcement is the basis of my entire business!  How did I not think of that?”  I so firmly believe in positive reinforcement as a way to encourage any human behavior, particularly when working on health goals, so today, I’ll talk a bit more about why.

Health is already something that many of us beat ourselves up over.  Let’s be honest, how many times have you said, “I’ll be perfect starting Monday” and then gotten frustrated when you were unable to hit that unattainable goal?  Have you ever gotten angry at yourself based on what the scale said, and channeled your anger straight into a pint of ice cream?  When it comes to our health, we’ve got the negativity part nailed … there’s simply no room for more negative emotions.

When I have my first few sessions with new clients, they often seem on edge, as if they were thinking, “when is she going to tell me I can’t do this” or “am I really bad for doing that?”  As we go through several sessions, though, they realize that I spend 80% of my time with them praising the goals they are reaching, and celebrating victories.  The individualized tracking sheets we have turn green when a client does hit a daily goal, but do not turn red if they client does not hit the goal.  This is, of course, by design: I want to turn the focus to the positive, keep them feeling energized, and inspire them to get more green boxes (thus, reaching more of their goals).

For example, let’s say a client’s goals were to eat a vegetable with each dinner, exercise three times per week, and choose water over soda every day.  The client successfully eats a vegetable with each dinner and exercises three times, but chooses soda two days.  At next week’s appointment, nearly all nutritionists would start with “what happened?  Why did you choose soda?”  In contrast, I will spend at least 5 minutes talking about the workouts, asking which vegetables they chose, and making them feel great.  If there is progress to be gained by talking about the soda, we will do it, but only briefly.  I want our coaching sessions to feel positive … and, of course, I want them to work.

does positive reinforcement work

And research shows that positive reinforcement does actually work!  There are many studies to show that behaviors increase when they are rewarded, largely because when we receive positive reinforcement, we get a “hit” of dopamine, a feel-good hormone, that makes us want to repeat the behavior over and over.  And even where studies show only marginal benefit (like this one, which shows better, but not statistically significantly better, results from positive reinforcement), I would argue that we still are better served going with positive reinforcement, because it feels so much better.  And if we can achieve our health goals while being kind to ourselves and having more fun, why wouldn’t we do that?

Here’s my challenge for you: Celebrate your health successes!  Write down 1 thing you did well for your health every day for the next week.  If you truly do this, I am positive you will feel better, more motivated, and be more likely to achieve your goals.  I can’t wait to hear how you feel!

Now it’s your turn … Do you respond better to positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement?  What is one thing you can celebrate about your health today?

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2 Comments

  1. Bev on April 23, 2019 at 7:16 am

    Give me a gold star any day and I’ll respond positively! My “go to” response tends to lean towards the negative but when I catch myself and look at all the good in the day, I feel much better and can continue on that upward trajectory. Today, I will sincerely celebrate every success no matter how small.

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