Positive Reinforcement for Punishing Situations


I’m reading an interesting book called Triggers: Creating Behaviors That Last, Becoming the Person You Want to Be by Marshall Goldsmith, and I just had the most interesting insight from reading the book. 

When discussing our most powerful triggers, they tend to be one of four specific types- Encouraging triggers (associated with what we want), discouraging triggers (what we don’t want), productive triggers (what we need), and counter-productive triggers (what we don’t need).  

In an ideal situation, we will always have encouraging-productive triggers in our lives so we will always move toward actions that we both want and need (praise and recognition, money), and we will avoid counter-productive-discouraging triggers as they provide neither what we want or need (isolation, intolerance, etc). The trick is avoiding triggers that are what we want, but don’t need (counter-productive-encouraging: such as temptations) and appropriately dealing with triggers we need but don’t want (discouraging-productive such as fear and pain).

This literally triggered an insight I had from my conference in Portland this past January, and how this relates to our fitness, as well (because nearly everything I read or experience I find a way to relate to my fitness). The conference was on Positive Reinforcement Training in animals, and a speaker recounted a story of a fellow dog trainer who was an adamant positive reinforcement trainer. Her dogs never heard the word “no”. They never experienced uncomfortable stimulus punishment presents. Not too long before the symposium, the lady had surgery and was prescribed heavy pain medication. One morning, while taking her recommended dose, the bottle was knocked over and the pills fell to the floor, catching the attention of her dog. It ran over to investigate, as typically the only things that fell to the floor were treats and toys. The lady’s heart stopped as the image of her precious puppy overdosing on her pain medication flashed in her mind. Without thinking, the dog trainer screamed “NO!” near the top of her lungs. This sudden and abrupt punishment which the dog had never experienced in its life caused the animal to stop dead in its tracks. The pause gave the lady the chance to scoop up all the pills and safely place them out of her dog’s reach.

Interestingly, the speaker said the fellow trainer felt absolutely horrible after the incident. Rather than focusing on how she was able to keep her dog safe, she only focused on the fact that she had used positive punishment. She was a positive reinforcement trainer, not a punishment trainer! How could she dare use punishment on her precious babies!

I saw it a very different way, and so did the speaker recounting the story. Because the dog had only been exposed to positive reinforcement in its interactions with the trainer, the rare, unthinkable punishment was that much more powerful and effective. If punishment had been the only consequence the dog had ever experienced, if hearing the word “no” throughout the day was a common occurrence, would the sudden and abrupt punishment been as effective to stop the dog dead in its tracks when it truly mattered?

It’s like The Boy Who Cried Wolf. If we use punishment in our day to day life, then when it really is appropriate, it doesn’t mean anything. I feel the lady from the story was most certainly the essence of a positive reinforcement trainer. The speaker also shared insight on using punishment in positive reinforcement scenarios that I was reminded of while reading Triggers. He said punishers are a part of life. Pain, fear, anxiety, illness, (boredom), they are elements we can work to prevent, but they happen. We can’t avoid them all the time. 

By focusing on positive reinforcement rather than a punishing mentality, we can appropriately deal with potential averse situations. In fitness, it works almost in an exact opposite as the dog training scenario. If we rely on punishment to complete our goals, we focus on avoiding the punishment rather than the experience at hand. Say we are running down the trail and we get a sudden and sharp pain in our side. Our fear of punishment may override our body’s uncomfortable pain. This is counter-productive and can be detrimental to our health.

If we focus on positive reinforcement, in both our mentality and in rewarding ourselves, we will be more in-tuned with what is going on with ourselves. Does the cramp hurt when running? What if we slow to a light jog or walk? Is the soreness just uncomfortable, from fatigue, or is it an actual pain? We begin to take notice of the subtle difference between soreness and injury. But with a punishment focus, we are actually reinforced to ignore those differences and push through the pain, even if it is debilitating.

We are going to face aversives in our fitness, just as in life. But when we focus on positive reinforcement, we actually empower ourselves to treat us more appropriately. We are able to handle situations in more positive manners, and the punishing elements have minimal effect on our psyche and our motivation. 

Try it out and see if I’m wrong. Treat yourself with respect. Treat your body well. And tell me your fitness doesn’t soar to new heights, and dealing with fear, anxiety, and even pain isn’t easier and lighter. Fitness is a great medicine to reduce all sorts of ailments- it can, when used properly and positively, change your whole outlook on life itself. You’ll be a pro-ZooFitter!

One thought on “Positive Reinforcement for Punishing Situations”

  1. Yeah, I was thinking the trainer was too one sided with her training and she should have used some negatives. I didn’t think of how much better it is to always focus on the positive. There are so many situations where I automatically gravitate towards negativity as the right thing, it’s almost subconscious. But if there is one thing I know is that, to change the world around you, you first have to start with your mind.

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