Natural vs. Contrived Reinforcers

The ABC framework states that behavior (B) is caused by its antecedents (A) and its consequences (C). Of these two, consequences have the biggest impact on behavior.

In addition, consequences can be of two general types: reinforcers, which increase the likelihood of behavior; and punishers, which decrease the likelihood of behavior.

It’s also important to understand that some of the consequences we experience in life are natural, and some are contrived.

Natural consequences are those that occur naturally as a result of engaging in a particular behavior.

For example, saying “hello” to a stranger might produce a smile from that person, which may increase the likelihood that you’ll say hello to strangers in the future. Or learning how to speak Spanish may produce the reinforcing outcome of having a nice conversation with someone on your trip to Sevilla, Spain. Or drinking too much alcohol might produce the natural punisher of having a hangover, which would decrease future excessive drinking.

In contrast, contrived reinforcers are those that are explicitly used for the purpose of changing behavior.

For example, college teachers might use extra credit as a way to reinforce their students’ behavior of coming to class. Or a parent might use a punishing “time out” to decrease the likelihood that his children will fight with one another. Or a person might allow himself to have a reinforcing “cheat” meal if he has met his goal of exercising every day that week.

(Important side note: Regardless of whether a consequence is natural or contrived, remember that it must have an impact on behavior before it can be considered either a reinforcer or a punisher. Very often, people attempt to modify their own or another person’s behavior using outcomes that are ineffective. When behavior doesn’t change, they conclude that reinforcement or punishment “doesn’t work.” In reality, they have simply tried to use outcomes that are not functioning as they hoped they would—for example, a presumed reinforcer is actually punishing behavior—or are not functioning as any type of consequence at all.)

Importantly, sometimes it’s difficult to determine whether consequences are natural or contrived. For example, consider academic grades. Is a good grade a natural outcome of attending class, studying, and so on? Or is it a contrived consequence that educators use to get students to attend class and study? What about the compliment your boss gave you after a job well done? Was it just a natural part of your conversation, or was your boss using the compliment as a way to keep you working hard?

Although many believe that the use of contrived consequences is a hallmark of behavior analysis, this is a mistaken notion. In fact, behavior analysts believe that natural reinforcers should be used as much as possible in behavior change programs. That way, any changes in behavior that occur will be maintained naturally in the environment in which it occurs (presuming the environment remains relatively consistent).

But sometimes, natural consequences are either (a) not immediately available or (b) the opposite of what is required to change behavior in desired ways.

Take, for example, someone who wants to start exercising consistently in an attempt to lose weight. One relatively intense exercise session is most likely not going to result in dramatic weight loss. Moreover, it might even produce some consequences that have a punishing effect, such as feeling exhausted after the workout and having sore muscles the following day.

Most likely, these natural consequences will not maintain the behavior of exercising.

In such cases, it is almost always necessary to use contrived consequences as a way of getting the behavior to start moving in the desired direction. For example, a person who has hit his goal of exercising three times this week might treat himself to a rewarding night out with his partner. Moreover, he may need to do this for a few weeks (or even longer) to keep things going.

In time, though, the hope is that natural consequences—compliments from others, getting into that old pair of jeans that hasn’t fit for 10 years, having more energy throughout the day—will start to “take hold” and keep the behavior going. At this point, the contrived consequences are no longer needed and can be phased out or even removed immediately.

Finally, there are a couple important points to keep in mind as you think about natural and contrived consequences and how they might impact your behavior-change program.

First, there may be times when contrived consequences will always be needed to maintain a desired behavior. For example, it’s unlikely that natural consequences in the workplace would be enough to maintain a person’s work behavior if her salary—for many or most people, a contrived reinforcer—was removed.

There’s nothing wrong with contrived consequences if they are having the desired effect on behavior. If you need them, use them!

Second, there may be times when you’ll need to reintroduce contrived consequences if a desired behavior is dropping off. For instance, when people first start to lose weight, they often receive a slew of positive comments, which might reinforce the behaviors of eating well and exercising. But as weight loss slows or as people become familiar with the “new you,” the compliments might decrease in frequency. If the compliments were effective reinforcers, you might find that your motivation to eat well and exercise is declining. In that case, you may need to use contrived reinforcers to get back on track.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this—do what’s needed to get where you want to be.

In sum, understanding the difference between natural and contrived consequences is important for knowing how you can effectively change your behavior. Once you have used contrived consequences to get things moving in the right direction, natural consequences can take over and keep things going.