Behavior 101 is an ongoing series about the principles underlying human behavior, and how to apply those to changing problem behavior in children, teaching children skills and maintaining positive behaviors. This installment: the principle of deprivation.
Let’s say I need you to do something for me, like that cleaning gutters example from the principle of contingency video. Given an arduous task like that, would you do it in return for a glass of water?
Under normal circumstances, almost certainly not. Water is free, readily available and not something we generally find to be overwhelmingly reinforcing. But, what if you had just spent 36 hours wandering the desert? Would you find the offer of a glass of water — probably paid in advance, under those circumstances — to be sufficient to compel you to climb a ladder and pull leaves out of my gutters?
That is the spirit of the principle of deprivation, that a reinforcer becomes more powerful when we have been without it. Or, as L. Keith Miller puts it:
The more deprived the person, the more effective the reinforcer. (Principles of Everyday Behavior Analysis, 4th ed., p. 234)
We already know this, of course. It’s the same principle that allows sweatshops to exploit poor and desperate people into working long hours for low pay. The workers are so deprived of money, that even a small amount for a backbreaking workload is a sufficiently reinforcing proposition to draw them in.
As I’ve noted previously, the principle of deprivation is sometimes called the principle of satiation. Satiation is the opposite of deprivation, so this is just a conceptualization of the same idea in reverse. A reinforcer will be less effective if it has been heavily received in the recent past. You know how you feel full and sick after eating too much dessert, to the point that even the thought of cake makes you want to vomit? That’s satiation — a previously reinforcing stimulus (cake) has temporarily lost its attractiveness and therefore wouldn’t entice you to do anything to earn it. I could offer you a whole sheet cake just to shake my hand and you probably wouldn’t do it.
And on that note, we wrap up the section on principles of effective consequences. You now know major factors affecting the effectiveness of consequences, so you can use that knowledge to better teach children appropriate behaviors and respond to inappropriate ones.
What things does your child not get very often that could be used as a reinforcer for good behavior? Bonus question: do you see how the principle of deprivation relates to the principle of size?
(Image credit: Todd Baker » technowannabe’s flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.)