Archive for July, 2012

July 31st, 2012

Going Negative: Using Negative Reinforcement to Shape Consumer Behavior

By Kyle Morich


We all know the obnoxious klaxon call of the morning alarm clock.


Even before our brains can draw back the heavy drapes of sleep and form a coherent thought, we throw our bodies from underneath the covers and hurl our limbs toward the infernal contraption.


The sweet silence that follows turning off the alarm (or hitting the snooze button) is soothing and peaceful. It is also what we call negative reinforcement, and your company could benefit a great deal by incorporating it into your customer training plans.

In our habit-based model of behavior, the brain learns from feedback following a contextual behavior. If the feedback is punishing, it makes that behavior less likely to occur in the future. If the feedback is reinforcing, it makes the behavior more likely to occur. When you add something pleasant after the behavior, we call that positive reinforcement, such as giving a child a cookie after they make clean their room. When you take away something aversive, we call that negative reinforcement, as in the alarm clock scenario—getting out of bed is reinforced by the removal of the irksome alarm sound. 

The various forms of feedback

Companies often shy away from negative reinforcement except in task-oriented user interface interactions, like an ATM chiming until you remove your card or the ringing of a phone to get you to answer it (although with smartphones increasingly offering pleasant melodies or even popular songs as ringtones, the negative reinforcement dynamic of a phone call is becoming a historical artifact). One area we often see negative reinforcement shape behavior is in consumers who do not have routinized habits for “chore” activities, such as mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, or maintaining a vehicle. The chore going undone creates a negative emotional reaction in the consumer. This reaction, usually anxiety or frustration, builds and builds until the customer performs the behavior to remove that uncomfortable feeling: cutting the long and unkempt grass, vacuuming the living room rug, or getting the car’s tires rotated. This relief from anxiety reinforces that behavior, and makes it more likely to occur in the future. Even consumers who are highly habitual in their chores (e.g., mow the lawn each and every Saturday morning) will feel some measure of emotional relief from the task completion.

One variable in this negative reinforcement equation is the consumer’s personal emotional threshold, or the point at which the anxiety or frustration becomes too much to bear and the behavior must occur. One discovery I have found with my fiancée-soon-to-be-wife is that we have vastly different emotional thresholds for cleaning the house. I can let dust and dinge accumulate for days or weeks before I feel compelled to clean, whereas she can feel a single dog hair shed upon the carpet mocking her very existence. It’s not that I don’t care about cleaning our home—it just takes me longer to build up a motivating emotional response than she does. A cleaning products company whose revenue depends on how much I clean my home (such as Swiffer, Windex, or whatever brand makes my vacuum bags) could try to aim its advertising at heightening my awareness to the uncleanliness of my home or intensifying the emotions I feel about it.

The next time you have a behavior problem and want to use feedback to shape and change what your customers do, consider how negative reinforcement can help you accomplish your training goals. It’s always a good plan to offer a cookie when a customer does something right, but sometimes helping them remove something sour can be just as sweet.

1. Image by xJason.Rogersx on flickr.