Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
How many of us wake up to the glaring sound of an alarm clock to get our butts out of bed?
How many of us procrastinate with finishing projects until our anxiety level reaches an intensity that finally drives us to get it done?
How many times would our parents or caretakers nag us when we were younger before we would finally clean our rooms, finish our homework, get up to go to school, go to bed etc.?
Think over the past 24 hours and ask yourself, “How many things have I done that were motivated by either minimizing or avoiding anxiety, restlessness, fear or unpleasant states? How does that compare to the amount of things I have done that were motivated by excitement, love, and inspiration?
Negative reinforcement = a type of learning pattern where an action response is strengthened by reducing, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus. The negative in negative reinforcement refers to the removal or avoidance of an uncomfortable stimulus. The reinforcement refers to the increased probability for you to use the action that removes or reduces the unpleasant condition in the future when you might encounter a similar uncomfortable stimulus again.
Alarm clocks, anxiety to get projects done, nagging parents (and romantic partners), all fall under the negative reinforcement category.
Your car seat-belt alarm uses negative reinforcement when you forget to put on your seat-belt and makes that designed-to-be annoying sound to make sure you eventually put it on.
Mind-Simulation: Imagine you are the type of person who does not like wearing seat-belts. They wrinkle your clothes and simply feel uncomfortable and constrictive. You try to ignore the seat-belt alarm, but it becomes so annoying that you eventually put your seat-belt on to stop the sound. This is called an escape response.
Through rounds of negative reinforcement, you will eventually put your seat-belt on to avoid hearing the obnoxious noise altogether. This is a form of learning where you have internalized the bothersome alarm pattern, can accurately anticipate it, which then creates an impulse for you to put the seatbelt on before the alarm goes off. This is called an avoidance response.
Mind-Simulation 2: Now imagine you are the type of student who does not like doing their math homework. You decide to not do your math homework one day and receive a bad grade. Your parents find out and they get upset at you – making you feel terrible. You do not like doing math homework but hate the consequences of getting a bad grade so your mind anticipates the negative consequences and creates an uncomfortable internal signal (anxiety) in your body that rises in intensity until you do your math homework – which relieves you of your anxiety.
Anxiety is a powerful offspring of negative reinforcement.
One key signal that clues you into the high probability that you’re are operating under negative reinforcement is the feeling of relief. How many of you out there after completing a task or project feel predominately relief when you are finished? If so, then negative reinforcement is likely the dominant pattern being used.
What is the problem with negative reinforcement? The problem with negative reinforcement is that it is built around avoidance. It teaches us to use escaping and avoiding discomfort as a way to motivate and guide us through life. The more we use negative reinforcement the better we get at avoiding and escaping. The better we get at avoiding and escaping the more likely we will use them as a way to motivate ourselves through life.
It is clear from psychological research that avoidance strategies tend to increase suffering. When we avoid, we miss out on opportunities to learn how to tolerate discomfort and to learn how to master uncomfortable situations. This is particularly important when it comes to our emotions. The better we get at avoidance the more likely we will use it when we experience uncomfortable emotions. This will increase our tendency to suppress and repress our difficult emotions (our favorite form of suppression is through distraction – drugs, internet, food, etc.). Scientific evidence demonstrates that when we regularly suppress or repress our emotions, we create internal conflicts within our mind that often leads to suffering and a host of negative consequences.
There is a deep bond between avoidance and anxiety. Anxiety in essence is a signal developed by the body that leads to an impulse to avoid whatever is perceived to provoke the anxiety. If you are anxious about speaking in public – you will tend to avoid doing so. If you get anxiety by imagining you will be rejected when asking someone out – you will tend to avoid potential romantic partners.
Anxiety, when it becomes more severe, has the power to shrink your world through its power of avoidance which limits learning opportunities. Less learning opportunities will make you less knowledgeable, skillful, and resourceful and you will begin to doubt yourself more. This leads to more discomfort and anxiety which creates a boa constrictor effect in your life situation that slowly closes in on you and increases the pressure and suffering you experience.
Negative reinforcement is a learning pattern based on avoidance and avoidance is deeply wedded to anxiety. Therefore the more we use negative reinforcement in our lives the more likely we are to experience anxiety and suffer. Through negative reinforcement we essentially learn how to beat ourselves up by using anxiety to get things done. The anxiety pattern will tend to spread into other areas of our lives creating more avoidance and less learning opportunities. We miss out on building new skills and knowledge which leads to higher self-doubt and more anxiety. This is a suffering cul-de-sac.
When exploring my own patterns, I was amazed by how many of my routine tasks were being driven by negative reinforcement to avoid or reduce anxiety. It became clear why anxiety was in my life so often – it was the prime motivator of the majority of my day to day activities! My mind seemed perfectly ok with using anxiety to get me to get things done. My thinking mind also had a powerful belief in place that I needed anxiety to get things done – as if it were the only motivating emotion in town.
I made a list of my daily routine tasks that were motivated primarily through anxiety. I started with checking my weekly accounting measures. I paid close attention on how I was using anxiety to motivate myself to check my accounting records. I noticed I would procrastinate checking my accounting until my anxiety intensity would reach a level 4 (out of a scale of 0-10).
I changed this negative reinforcement pattern, first by checking my accounting twice a week at scheduled times. Next I wrote down positive emotions that would support my motivation for this new pattern. I included the benefits of getting to this important information earlier in the day and reframed the entire process as a powerful learning opportunity on how to grow and create a better business. I imagined how my better business would better serve my clients and the positive feelings that that would generate.
It took practice and some trial and error but eventually I rewrote my accounting motivation system to be driven by mastery and excellence rather than by avoidance. In other words, I reprogrammed my mind to use approach motivations rather than avoidance motivations. Not only did my business improve but I also had less anxiety, less suffering, and more positive emotional experiences in my day.
I then moved on to the next task, propelled forward by positive momentum…
If you want to optimize your day to day living, I recommend reviewing your day to day tasks and making a list of those tasks that you are using negative reinforcement. Ask yourself if the task can be motivated positively through approach motivations: learning new knowledge or skills, developing mastery, achieving value-driven goals, etc.
Start with one task and practice reprogramming the avoidance motivations into approach motivations and continue to experiment until you are able to rewrite your motivation system for that task.
Tip: If you discover some anxiety when doing the task that you are reprogramming – stop doing the task, get up and imagine approach motivations for doing the task and then go back to doing the task. It can take some time but with enough practice and experimentation you will get better and better at restructuring your motivation systems.
The goal is not to eliminate all negative reinforcement but to periodically scan your motivation systems and see where approach motivations can be used instead of avoidance motivations and keep negative reinforcement and its offspring, anxiety, in check.