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.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Positive reinforcement in probation work.

In the future, I’d like to be a probation officer. It is not unheard of for probation officers to use principles of applied behaviour analysis within their field of work, more specifically the principle of positive reinforcement.

The positive reinforcement principle is based on the Skinner (1938) and Thorndike’s ‘Law of Effect’ (1927), which states that the probability of a certain behavior occurring in a particular setting depends on the person’s previous experiences of that behavior. To be more precise, it depends on the consequences that followed that behavior previously. So, if negative consequences followed the behavior, it is less likely to occur and if it was followed by positive consequences, it is more likely to occur again.  Applied Behaviour Analysis embodies this idea within its aims as it means to alter the frequency of a specific behavior.

Probation officers can apply this principle by highlighting the good things that their client’s are doing and encouraging those things rather than trying to catch them doing something wrong. For example, finding examples of their clients exhibiting prosocial, appropriate behaviours and positively reinforcing them with privileges, social attention, approval or anything else that is likely to increase the occurrence of those behaviours. This technique has been proven to be effective by Schwitgebel (1964) who conducted a study in which positive reinforcement was used with young offenders. In this study, young offenders were rewarded with cash when they attended sessions and talked in detail about their experiences. It was found that this positive reinforcement for successful accomplishments lead to a reduced number of arrests and incarcerations compared to controls.

Similar results were also found in a later study conducted by the same researcher, which found a significant increase in the frequency of behaviours exhibited by adolescent male delinquents when those behaviours were followed by positive consequences (Schwitzgebel, 1967).

Therefore, when I am a probation officer I will make sure to use the principle of positive reinforcement with my clients by highlighting and rewarding prosocial behaviours in the hope that they will exhibit these behaviours more in the future and thus be less likely to get arrested again.


Schwitzgebel, R. L. (1964) Street corner research: an experimental approach to juvenile delinquency. Cam-bridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Schwitzgebel, R.L. (1967) Short-term operant conditioning of adolescent offenders on socially relevant variables. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 72(2), 134-142.

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

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The Law of Effect. The American Journal of Psychology, 39, 212-222.

Natasha Foxon (Blog 4)

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