Social Reinforcement and Behavior

Three people socializing

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There are many different types of reinforcement, but when it comes to human beings, one of the most common is the naturally occurring social reinforcers that we encounter all around us every day. Social reinforcement refers to reinforcers such as smiles, acceptance, praise, acclaim, and attention from other people.

In some cases, simply being in the presence of other people can serve as a natural social reinforcement.

How Does Social Reinforcement Work?

In a famous study conducted in 1968, researchers looked at school-age children who spent little time studying. The children were then given praise and attention for their study efforts. The researchers found that children studied up to twice as much when given social reinforcement than they did before when they received no such reinforcement.

In some cases, this attention does not even need to come from an outside source. Self-reinforcement is a concept highly related to social reinforcement that involves giving yourself approval for your own behavior. We often respond to our own behavior with approval or disapproval, judging our actions just as we would those of another individual.

When you do something well, you might praise yourself and feel proud of your accomplishment. If you do poorly, you might engage in self-recrimination or self-blame. In some cases, you might actually reward yourself more overtly when you accomplish a goal that you have set for yourself. For example, you might buy yourself a new pair of jeans after you reach your target weight or you might treat yourself to an indulgent dinner after completing a difficult school project.

The Importance of Social Reinforcement

Researchers have found that social reinforcement can play a vital role in a variety of areas, including health. The influence of people in our social networks can influence the type of health choices and decisions that we make. In a 2010 article from The New York Times, writer Natasha Singer explains, "The amount of social reinforcement you give to people to improve their health habits may be more important than who is encouraging them to do so. In other words, a local community network of friends and neighbors may be more important than a remote celebrity spokesman in stopping the spread of, say, sexually transmitted diseases among teenagers."

Such social reinforcement can also be helpful when trying to achieve a health-related goal such as becoming more physically fit. Enlisting the help of friends and finding people to exercise with can help inspire people to persevere and achieve their goals.

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  1. Hall RV, Lund D, Jackson D. Effects of teacher attention on study behaviorJ Appl Behav Anal. 1968;1(1):1-12. doi:10.1901/jaba.1968.1-1

  2. Christakis NA, Fowler JH. The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network Over 32 YearsN Engl J Med. 2007;357(4):370-379. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa066082

  3. Singer N. Better Health, With a Little Help From Our Friends. New York Times.