Author Alan C. Fox: Why Positive Reinforcement is (almost) Always Better Than Negative

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Years ago, a University of Southern California professor who was teaching a psychology class I was sitting in on taught me an important lesson about human behavior. He suggested that positive reinforcement is a more effective way of getting people to do what you want than negative reinforcement. “What?!?!?!” I objected. “That’s crazy!” Despite my objections, he challenged me to try out his theory with my friends, loved ones, and employees and report back to the class about my results. To my surprise, he was right: in almost every instance that week, using positive reinforcement rather than negative yielded a better result for me and the other people involved.

This lesson has stuck with me over the years. And I’ve found that, more often than not, positive reinforcement has proven to be a much more effective motivator than more negative approaches. Below are four of my favorite positive reinforcement “tools” that have helped me immensely not only to build better relationships, but also to become a better human being:

  1. Catch Them Being Good

If you want people around you to repeat a behavior you enjoy, praise them. When I was growing up, compliments were rare.  My father believed that admiration asphyxiates ambition, so while he bragged about me to his friends he seldom, if ever, gave me a compliment.  But as the great English writer Samuel Johnson wrote, “The applause of a single human being is of great consequence.” And I’ve found this to be very true. So one of my favorite motivation techniques is to “catch” those around me doing things that I like (like preparing my favorite foods or making an extra effort at work) by praising them, instead of punishing them for doing things I don’t like. For everyone I know I try to “catch them being good.”

  1. Generosity is Rewarded

As a business owner I am very cost conscious, but I have always operated under the principle that good work should be fairly compensated. I pay more than adequate salaries and often reward exemplary work with bonuses. I find that when I pay my employees generously, they respond with their best work. As a result, my employees love working for me. I know this because they show up five days a week, smile at me, and do what I ask them to do.  Many have been with me for more than thirty years. The same goes for my personal relationships. Going out of my way to help someone, even if it’s inconvenient for me, makes a lasting positive impression.  And my favors are often returned!

  1. A Little Bit of Oil

The moving parts in your car require lubrication.  So does the friction in your human relationships.  As a manager, father, husband, and friend, I’ve realized that it is often my job to provide that social lubrication to keep everything running smoothly in the office, at dinner, at a party—even when the tension I’m soothing isn’t my fault. If someone is feeling sad the best “oil” I can provide is to listen and sympathize.  I don’t have to solve the problem – time will do that.  With proper lubrication a car engine will run for many miles. With proper lubrication from humor or from just plain listening, a human relationship will run smoothly for many years.

  1. Dangle A Carrot

We all know the old saying about how it’s more effective to dangle a carrot in front of a donkey to get it to move than it is to strike it with a stick. Well, I’ve found this old cliché to be consistently true in my life and work: people respond much better to potential reward than they do to potential punishment. It’s just human nature. For example, I recently hired a company to make some repairs to one of my properties. When the work remained only 95% complete for an extended period of time I told them they’d receive their full payment when the job was 100% finished. Workers showed up and the job was completed the very next day. Dangle a carrot. It’s often much more effective than the stick.



headshots, kids, portraits childrenAlan Fox is the New York Times bestselling author of PEOPLE TOOLS, a series of self-help books that give powerful advice on building happy and meaningful relationships. Alan has shared his wisdom with national audiences including the Steve Harvey and The Meredith Vieira shows.

51o8JebHYqL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_In Alan’s latest book People Tools for Love and Relationships: The Journey from Me to Us (endorsed by Steve Harvey), he shares genuine advice that you can use to enhance your connection with your spouse or partner, your family and friends—in fact with anyone who is important to you. From learning how to talk about money with your partner, how and when to apologize, to increasing trust and intimacy, each tool addresses a specific issue and provides a simple, straightforward approach to happy living.

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