Self Care 101: Reward Yourself with Negative Reinforcement

Joe Deer
Joe Deer / May 23, 2019

TL;DR: It’s important to reward yourself by getting bad things out of your life. Doing that is just as valid as bringing good things into your life.

Recently, many of us at Zapier were talking about motivating yourself through reinforcements and how finding the right reinforcements is really hard. It reminded me of a concept from operant conditioning. You might remember operant conditioning from Psychology 101. It’s all about B.F. Skinner and his boxes.

In operant conditioning, the concepts of reinforcement and punishment are a bit more complex than we usually think. We generally think of those terms as meaning “+1 good thing” or “+1 bad thing,” respectively. In operant conditioning “+1 good thing” is called a positive reinforcement and “+1 bad thing” is called a positive punishment.

However, positive reinforcements and positive punishments are only half the equation. The other half is negative reinforcement and negative punishments. If you’re thinking, “How can a ‘reinforcement’ be negative and how can a ‘punishment’ be positive?” fear not! We were all thinking the same thing. It’s a bit confusing because, here, “positive” means “additive” and “negative” means “subtractive.”

What Are Negative Reinforcements and Negative Punishments?

If that’s too heavy, here’s an example with a cat. When your cat screams at you to feed them, that’s a positive punishment because they are influencing your behavior by adding a noxious stimulus (their caterwauling) into your environment. By the same token, your cat provides you a negative reinforcement when they stop screaming and chomp down on their food because they have subtracted that same noxious stimulus.

Two cats
2007-01-07T01:27:54-05:00 by Joe Deer

To extend the metaphor, when your cat purrs because you're scratching their ears, that’s a positive reinforcement because they’ve introduced a pleasant stimulus (their adorable rumbles) into your environment. When your cat darts out of the room because you stepped on their tail, that’s a negative punishment because they’ve taken a pleasant stimulus (themself) out of your environment.

Human Examples of Negative Reinforcement

A more human example might be me making my bed. I don’t make it because I enjoy making it. Instead, I make my bed because a messy environment is noxious and makes me feel bad. The feeling I get from having a tidy bed is a negative reinforcement.

It’s important to remember that reinforcements and punishments can be tied to unhealthy habits too. For example, when a person smokes a cigarette, the nicotine causes their brain to produce a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine makes the person feel good and creates a positive reinforcement. When the nicotine leaves the body, a drop in dopamine causes distress. Withdrawal symptoms kick in creating a negative punishment. The smoker feels compelled to smoke another cigarette to remove those symptoms and restart the cycle with another positive reinforcement. Alan Carr, the author of Easy Way to Stop Smoking, says "Smoking is like banging your head against a brick wall because it feels a bit better when you stop."

The reason this all occurred to me over in that Slack thread is because it can be really motivating to remember that negative reinforcements exist and are just as important as positive reinforcements. They’re a bit harder to notice, but it’s worth the effort to look for them and nurture your appreciation of them. Whether freshly-cleaned rooms or well-fed kittens sleeping silently in sunbeams, negative reinforcements can be a great motivating factor and are important to your health.

Some ways I negatively reinforce myself:

  • Taking my car to get an oil change so I can stop worrying about it.
  • Shaving off my beard in the summer so my face doesn't get itchy.
  • Stopping watching a show or movie that I'm not really enjoying.
  • Putting on my noise-canceling headphones while I'm working (without turning music on) to enjoy some silence.
  • Turning off Slack notifications at the end of the day to alleviate anxiety.

What about you? Think of all the ways you can remove things from your day-to-day to improve it and reward yourself.

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