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Bribery Vs. Reinforcement; What’s the difference?

I think that all of us have heard the term reinforcement being thrown around a time or two in the special education world. Whether it is in a conference with your child’s classroom teacher, an IEP meeting, or talking to another parent, the term comes up quite frequently. Another concept that I have heard used quite commonly is bribery. I have been in IEP’s and proudly reviewed our most current reinforcement strategy, only to have someone say “Okay, so we are bribing them with skittles for doing their work?” This has made me realize that most people do not really know the difference. So, a question that I have for you is: Do you know the difference between bribery and reinforcement? Don’t feel bad if you do not! It is an extremely common mistake to confuse the two and I am going to clear up the misunderstanding for you today.

First, let’s take a look at what positive reinforcement is. The technical definition for positive reinforcement is “when a behavior is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus that increases the future frequency of the behavior” (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). So if this is broken down a little, it means that reinforcement is something that follows a behavior that will make it occur more frequently in the future. An example of positive reinforcement: I tell my son that each time he uses the potty and is dry he is going to get a piece of candy. He then uses the potty more frequently to gain access to more candy. I have reinforced the behavior of using the potty! Reinforcement is used to motivate our children into engaging in appropriate behaviors. It focuses on building up desired behaviors.

Okay, that seems pretty clear cut, right? Now let’s look at bribery. defines a bribe as “anything given or serving to persuade or induce.” The example is listed on is “The children were given candy as a bribe to be good.” The key part of that example is that they were given candy to be good, not for being good. A little confusing, but it won’t be soon! A bribe comes prior to the behavior occurring and we hope it will do the job. It often involves some kind of negotiation with your child, you try to set up the terms of the agreement with them. When we bribe, we are trying to induce our child into behaving with the payoff coming first. In reinforcement the payoff comes following the appropriate behavior. Bribery often is reactive to a behavior such as the all too common tantrum in the store when the child cannot have the cookies. It is done in the moment to induce the child to stop engaging in the behavior (i.e. the tantrum) with the hope that it will buy enough time to get you out of the store without any more tears or screaming. This is another reason it differs from reinforcement, as it does not increase the future frequency desired behaviors. In fact, the briber has most likely inadvertently reinforced the problem behavior, increasing the future frequency of the tantrums. Bribery is great in the short term, a fast fix for a problem, but it causes some major long term issues.

So how can you ensure that you are using reinforcement and not bribery? Some of the aspects of reinforcement are the following: The adult is in charge or the reinforcement (it is not a result of the child whining and asking for the item/activity), the reinforcement is planned out and explained ahead of time, and reinforcement is delivered with praise for completing the expected behavior. An example of setting your child up to be positively reinforced would look something like this: First give your child the choice of two activities you want them to complete (remember avoiding the Power Struggle?) For example, “Do you want to help do the dishes or pick up your toys?". Then, offer the reinforcement for completing the task, “Once you get all of your toys picked up you can play on the IPAD for 10 minutes.” You want to make sure that you are clear and concise when explaining the contingency to your child. Do not use a lot of extra language that may confuse them.

Setting clear expectations for your child prior to an activity and reinforcing the child when those expectations are met can set everyone up for a more successful experience!

One statement that I hear quite frequently is “well, my child shouldn’t have to get something for everything that I tell them to do.” My answer to that is that we all get reinforced in different ways. I am reinforced for cleaning my house by looking at a clean house when I am done, and I might even reinforce myself further by sitting on the couch with one of my favorite shows once I am done. We NEVER do something for free. There is always a reason for it. It might be going to work for a paycheck, feeling good that we helped someone out, seeing a completed project, etc. However, our children are not necessarily reinforced by a warm fuzzy feeling when they clean up their rooms. They may be reinforced by your approval and praise…depending on how much disarray their room is in!


So now that you have all of the facts, I have a quiz for you!

Here is a common scenario. A Mom sets up reinforcement for her son, telling him that he can have ice cream for dessert if he eats all of his dinner. Mom explains that that means he needs to eat everything on his plate. The child does a great job and eats all of his dinner with only a few reminders, so Mom gets him ice cream. The following occurs:

Mom: “Good job finishing your dinner! Let me get your ice cream.” (Mom then dishes out a scoop of ice cream for the child)

The child then happily finishes the ice cream

Child: “Can I have more ice cream please!”

Mom: “You finished all of your ice cream. We are not having any more.”

Child: “One more scoop! Please Mommy, Please!”

Mom: “No more tonight, you already had one scoop. You can have more tomorrow after you finish your dinner.”


Mom: “I’ll tell you what, ice cream is done…but if you stop asking I will give you five extra minutes of bath time tonight!”

Child: “Okay Mommy!” and the whining stops.

The next night the child eats all of their dinner with even less reminders from Mom. So where do you see the bribe? Where is the positive reinforcement? The positive reinforcement is contingency that is in place-earning ice cream if all of the dinner is finished. In a well-planned reinforcement system, the specific behavior that is being targeted (i.e. eating dinner) is well defined and reviewed with the child many times (all of the food on your plate needs to be eaten). The ice cream is the reinforcer for the targeted behavior. We want eating dinner to be the behavior that occurs more frequently in the future.

The bribe happened as a reaction to stop the whining. The mom ended up negotiating with the child by giving something more to stop the whining that was occurring at the time, it was reactive. The bribe worked, it stopped the whining for the time being; however it is not a long term solution. In fact, in the future the child will probably end up whining more in order to see what else gets offered up!!

I hope that this clears things up for you! When positive reinforcement is used correctly, it can be instrumental in creating lasting behavior changes that can benefit everyone. Bribery on the other hand can end up creating a lasting problem that will only get worse over time.

Please remember that these are general suggestions. If you have individual concerns regarding your child’s behavior that you would like assistance with, please reach out to get professional assistance. You can locate a qualified service provider in your area by visiting the Behavior Analyst Certification Board’s (BACB) website and search for service providers in your area. The BACB website contains a list of all Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs). You can also find qualified service providers by visiting the Autism Speaks website. They have great Resource Guide that allows you to search for services in your state. - Jamie

Bribe. (n.d.). Retrieved April 10, 2020, from website

Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Basic Concepts. Applied Behavior Analysis(2nd ed., pp 560-567). Columbus: Pearson

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