Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Policing and Positive Reinforcement

From a young age, whenever the question “What do you want to be when you grow up?” was asked, I responded in the same way: I want to be a police officer. Fifteen or so years later, and after having watched an embarrassing number of CSI episodes, this view still hasn’t changed.

Punishment and reinforcement are principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis which are inherent within the criminal justice system. We all know, for example, that if suspects are found guilty of a crime, they are punished by being sent to prison. Similarly, an inmate who has kept his head down, kept out of trouble, and seemed to have made a change for the better in prison may well have certain restrictions removed, or be rewarded with certain privileges – perhaps more time out of his/her cell. This would be a prime example of positive reinforcement: the strengthening of a desired behaviour by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding.

The principles described above are based on the work Skinner (1938), and Thorndike’s “Law of Effect” (1927), which, in essence, asserts that the likelihood of a behaviour occurring in a particular setting depends entirely on the consequences that followed it previously. So, if the behaviour resulted in negative consequences, it is less likely to occur, and if it had positive consequences, it is more likely to reoccur. Applied Behaviour Analysis seeks to alter the frequency with which a specific target behaviour occurs using the principles described above. Positive reinforcement provides a means of doing this, and could be used in my future line of work to reinforce the target behaviour of criminals that we want to increase the frequency of, such as refraining from violence with other inmates.

Research has shown that positive reinforcement can be used effectively as a core principle to shape offender behaviour. Studies have found, for example, that using positive reinforcement methods can significantly reduce drug dependency in inmates (Marlowe, Festinger, Dugosh, Arabia, & Kirby, 2008). Similarly, using rewards (i.e. token economy) with inmates has been shown to promote inmate cooperation with officers (Ross & McKay, 1980). This may be helpful in my future career role; offering incentives to prisoners in exchange for divulging information in an interrogation setting, may help to further a criminal investigation with a view to solving a case. Other research has shown that criminals, and in particular psychopaths, are responsive to positive reinforcement, in comparison to punishment, with which they are unresponsive (Newman, 1987). This is because they lack a fear response to negative stimuli, and so threatening them in order to gain information with regards to their criminal activities, perhaps by taking away their privileges, is unlikely to have an effect (Lykken, 1968). Using positive reinforcement techniques with psychopaths, however, is likely to be much more successful in getting them to cooperate and yield information (Newman, Kosson & Patternson, 1992). 

Overall, it seems that positive reinforcement is an effective way to both modify a criminal’s behaviour, and increase the frequency with which positive behaviour is demonstrated. As a result, in my future line of work as a police officer, I will be sure to subtly reward criminals, perhaps by offering more lenient sentences, or giving them more privileges, in exchange for more information about a crime, or good behaviour within prison. Not only is this more likely to be effective, it is also a more pleasant experience for all involved in comparison to punishment. 


Lykken, D. T. (1995). The Antisocial Personalities. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum

Marlowe, D. B., Festinger, D. S., Dugosh, K. L., Arabia, P., & Kirby, K. C. 2008. An
     effectiveness trial of contingency management in a felony preadjudication drug
     court. Journal of Applied Behaviour Analysis, 41, 565-577.

Newman, J. P., Kosson, D. S., & Patterson, C. M. (1992). Delay of gratification if
     psychopathic and nonpsychopathic offenders. Journal of Abnormal Pscyhology, 4,

Ross, R. R., & McKay, B. (1980). ‘Behavioural approaches to treatment in corrections:
     Requiem for a panacea’, in Ross, R. R. and Gendreau, P. (eds). Effective Correctional
     Treatment, Toronto, Butterworths, pp. 37-53.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York:

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The Law of Effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39,

Jordan Green (Blog Four)

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