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Natural Social Reinforcers

Probably the most commonly used reinforcer in human and animal affairs is natural social reinforcement. Natural social reinforcement includes all sorts of positive social contact, including (among humans) smiles, hugs, compliments, or simple attention and company.

What are natural social reinforcers?

Common social reinforcers among non-human animals are attention, touching, grooming, and cleaning. For example, small fish sometimes linger in the area of larger fish and clean them by eating parasites and debris from the larger fish. Walcott and Green (1974) showed that this cleaning symbiosis was reinforcing to the larger fish. In other words, the larger fish would perform a behavior more often when it was followed by contact with the smaller, cleaning fish.

Among humans, social reinforcers can be ruined if they are perceived to be fake or manipulative. A primary rule of social reinforcement is "be sincere." If flattery is honest and true, it is a powerful reinforcer. Perhaps the word flattery is a bad choice. To some people, it implies deceit, as if flattering someone means buttering them up, not really meaning what you say. The Dale Carnegie course, which teaches "how to win friends and influence people," says flattery is not recommended as a technique for winning friends, but appreciation is very effective!

Natural social reinforcement can be useful in professionally planned behavior modification programs. The following example is from Tharp and Wetzel's book Behavior Modification in the Natural Environment (1969).

How was natural social reinforcement used with Rena?

Case #50. Rena was referred by her parents who were very concerned about her inappropriate behavior at school. Rena, an elementary school student, was known throughout the school for her aggressiveness toward her peers, disruptive classroom behavior, and general defiance. After interviewing her parents, we discovered that Rena was exhibiting, on a somewhat lesser scale, the same behavior at home...

An intervention plan was set up whereby Rena's teacher could inform the parents each day her behavior was satisfactory. Since reinforcers at home were so limited, we had to rely on the positive attention her father could give her when he got home. They would play simple card games or play in the yard skipping rope, etc. Rena's father had occasionally done this with her, and by making it contingent, this interaction became very meaningful to her. When Rena's behavior was not satisfactory at school, this reinforcement did not occur.

The plan took effect rather rapidly, and before long Rena was no problem at school. And, as hoped, her behavior at home also improved.

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