Reinforcement or Bribery

What is the difference between Positive Reinforcement and bribery?

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard professional horse trainers and clinicians refer to Positive Reinforcement as “bribery.”

Do they even know what they’re talking about?

The working definition of reinforcement is basically, “a horse learns to do a behavior and to keep repeating the behavior.”

If the horse doesn’t learn to do a behavior and repeat it, it’s not reinforcement.

The working definition of bribery is “the offering of any item of value to influence the actions of an official in charge.”

Note that the definition of bribery does not include causing a repetition of the behavior. It’s a one-off deal.

In other words, bribery is not reinforcing.

Why not?

If you’re driving and you are pulled over for speeding, and you offer the officer cash to not write you a ticket, that’s bribery whether he accepts it or not. You offer an item of value to influence someone who has more power than you.

The officer may or may not accept the bribe depending upon many factors. The official may or may not expect money in return for not issuing a ticket the next time you’re caught speeding. But the likelihood of your not getting a ticket the second time is extremely low. The behavior of not writing a ticket may never be repeated. Unless you live in a society in which officials expect to be influenced. In that case, the officials are not bribed–Positive Reinforcement has taught them to have their hands out.

People extend the idea of bribery to other situations. If parents tell their children that they can have dessert if they eat their peas, that’s considered bribery, too.

Rewarding your children’s clean plates with dessert is reinforcement if it encourages them to eat their peas in the future. If they still refuse to eat peas–guess what? It’s not reinforcement because it’s not reinforcing.

Nearly everything we learn in life is from Positive Reinforcement at some point or other. How we encourage each other, how we motivate each other, what we get from each other, and what we get from the world is all reinforcement.

When a foal is born, it’s first instinct is to stand and then seek to suck, and it’s dam provides the milk that is the reinforcement for that effort. No one would call that “bribery.”

In the natural world, bribery is rare, probably because it’s unpredictable. Bribery doesn’t often reinforce because “the official in charge” may have many stronger motivations which override the offer of the item of value. If the police officer is afraid of being caught, has a quota for the weekend, or has ethics, the bribe will be refused. If the children are having a power struggle with their parents, the power struggle over the peas may override their desire for dessert.

The best example of bribery in horse training that I can think of is trying to get a loose horse loaded in a horse trailer by offering it a bucket of oats.

This is bribery because the loose horse has the option to enter the trailer or not, so the horse is “in charge” of the situation. Sometimes the bribe works and the horse goes in. But if there are other, stronger motivations at play for the horse such as the trailer smells foreign, it’s too dark, too small, or too frightening, the offer of the oats won’t be strong enough to be of value. The bribe will be refused.

If the horse does go in, takes a bite of oats, and runs back out–never to be loaded again–it’s definitely not reinforcing the behavior the handler wanted, either.

Some riders complain, “I use Positive Reinforcement all the time, but it doesn’t work. My horse does what he wants, anyway.”

If that’s true, then the rider didn’t actually use reinforcement–because it wasn’t reinforcing.

Bribery? Maybe. Reinforcement–no.

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