Differential Reinforcement: How to Change Other People’s Behavior without Damaging the Relationship

Differential Reinforcement is a proven technique from behavioral psychology for effectively and respectfully changing the behavior of others.

Despite what we hear in popular self-help books, it is possible to change other people’s behavior for the better. And you can do it without resorting to any of the nasty methods we typically associate with influencing others —nagging, bullying, threatening, ultimatums, etc.

In fact, as a psychologist, teaching my clients how to do this effectively is a huge part of what I do for a living. Because contrary to another popular myth, our struggles and difficulties aren’t “just in our heads.”

With a little creativity, some patience, and a few principles of behavioral psychology, anyone can learn to simultaneously eliminate negative behavior and creative positive alternative behavior in the people around them.

For the better part of a century, behavioral psychologists have been studying and implementing a technique called Differential Reinforcement to do just that.

So whether you’re interested in cultivating better manners in your children, breaking your spouse of their annoying habit of leaving laundry on the floor, or even training your boss to be less overbearing, learning to implement differential reinforcement can significantly improve your quality of life.

In this article, we’ll walk through what differential reinforcement actually looks like with a case study from my own work as a therapist. Then we’ll talk about how differential reinforcement works, followed by two practical examples of how to employ it in real-life situations.

Note: You can use the links below to jump straight to any section of the article:

Vicky the Venter

Vicky venter differential reinforcement

One of my biggest professional challenges as a therapist came in the form of a client whom I affectionately referred to in my head as “Vicky the Venter.”

Vicky had a habit of sitting down in my office at the beginning of our sessions and immediately launching into a long re-telling of all the stressful things that had happened to her over the past week.

Of course, a little venting and talking about your week is normal at the beginning of a therapy session. But it’s rarely therapeutic and can often take up huge chunks of time that would be far more productively spent working on our stated goals.

My dilemma was:

How do I get Vicky the Venter to stop venting and begin our sessions more productively?

I’d tried bringing this up with her explicitly, and each time she agreed that she wanted to start her sessions more productively. But it was a habit she just couldn’t seem to break.

With a little help from a clever supervisor, I implemented a differential reinforcement plan that very quickly turned Vicky into one of the most efficient, productive clients on my caseload.

Here’s how I got Vicky to stop venting

As soon as Vicky started in on her venting session, I stopped asking questions or commenting on her narrative and severely limited the amount of non-verbal interaction I had with her while she was storytelling about all her weekly stress. In other words, I stopped engaging with her beyond a minimum of respect and politeness.

And then, at the first hint of Vicky getting off the venting train and bringing up one of our agreed-upon goals for therapy, I made a huge point to be enthusiastic and approving of this shift.

I commented on what a great idea that was, my non-verbals got big and positive (smiles, eyes wide open, sitting forward and straighter in my chair, etc), and I started asking specific questions about what she had in mind. In other words, I laid on the positive engagement pretty heavy.

Over the next few weeks, Vicky’s venting sessions became progressively shorter. By our fourth session after implementing my differential reinforcement plan, her venting was down to a totally acceptable 2–3 minutes. 

She even commented on our way out of my office one day: “You know, I really feel like we’ve been making a lot of progress the last few weeks. It’s really encouraging!”

I couldn’t have been more pleased. Vicky went from being one of those clients you kind of dread seeing on your schedule to someone I genuinely looked forward to seeing and working with each week. All because of a little differential reinforcement.


How Differential Reinforcement Works

Vicky venter differential reinforcement works

Differential reinforcement as two basic elements:

  1. Withholding reinforcement for undesired behaviors.
  2. Applying reinforcement for desired behaviors.

In the case of my client, Vicky, her venting about her weekly stresses was the undesired behavior that I wanted to reduce. So, whenever her venting behavior came up, I withheld engagement and excess attention (both of which reinforced the venting behavior and made in more likely to occur in the future).

But I also made it a point to pile on the engagement and attention whenever she engaged in the desired behavior of bringing up her therapeutic goals. In this case, my application of a reinforcer (engagement and attention) increased the likelihood that she would perform this behavior sooner in the future.

In short, the first part of differential reinforcement is to stop unwittingly feeding the undesired behavior, and the second part is to feed the desired behavior in as appealing a manner as possible.

A 5-Step Plan for Implementing Differential Reinforcement

Vicky venter differential reinforcement plan

If you want to get started using differential reinforcement to positively influence the behavior of people around you, here’s the recipe to follow:

  1. Identify the problem behavior. It’s important from the outset that you identify a specific and concrete behavior. You can’t reinforce a feeling or a thought in someone. It must be a physical behavior. In other words, you can work to reduce elbows on the table, showing up late for work, sarcastic comments, and nose picking, but you can’t reliably reduce sadness, fear, worry, or regret.
  2. Decide on an alternative behavior. Once you’ve identified the negative behavior you’d like to reduce or eliminate, consider which more positive behavior you would like to substitute for that one. For example: decrease shouting in the classroom and increase using our “inside voices;” decrease leaving dirty clothes on the bathroom floor and increase putting dirty clothes in the hamper; decrease overly critical comments in weekly sales meetings and increase constructive feedback in the same meetings.
  3. Teach the alternative behavior. Now that you know the new desired behavior you’d like to increase, it’s important that the subject has a clear picture of what that behavior is. Taking the example of encouraging constructive feedback rather than critical comments from the example above: As the leader of a weekly meeting, you might take the first few minutes of the next meeting to emphasize to everyone in the room that going forward we’re going to work on providing constructive criticism. And the three elements of constructive criticism are A) Respectful language, B) No sarcasm, etc…
  4. Pick a powerful reinforcer. While it’s crucial to clearly define what the alternative behavior you want to encourage looks like, you must also have a strong reinforcer that will reward the subject for adopting that new behavior. Ideally, the reinforcer should be something that A) can be administered immediately after the alternative behavior is implemented and B) something the subject finds personally valuable. Genuine, heartfelt praise is often a surprisingly effective reinforcer.
  5. In the beginning, reinforce frequently and consistently, then gradually fade out. Many people shy away from the idea of using reinforcers to promote better behavior because it seems childish and they don’t want to have to do it indefinitely. Crucially, reinforcement is essential early on, but once the new behavior has been established as a habit, the frequency of the reinforcer can (and should) lessen and potentially disappear entirely. That being said, it’s critical in the early stages that you apply the reinforcer frequently and consistently in order to get the new behavior to “stick.” Once the behavior appears reliable, experiment with decreasing both the frequency and intensity of reinforcement. And to really strengthen the new behavior, you can use a Variable Reinforcement Schedule, which means reinforcing it in an unpredictable frequency.

2 Practical Examples of Differential Reinforcement in Action

To give you a better, more concrete idea for how differential reinforcement looks in real-life, I’ll walk through some case-studies of differential reinforcement in 2 very different domains: Work and Parenting.

WORK: Using differential reinforcement to change a boss’ bad email habits

Vicky venter differential reinforcement boss

I worked with a client once who had significant anxiety problems that lead to major bouts of insomnia. The key driver of his insomnia, we discovered, was that he was often wound-up, tense, and anxious late at night before bed because his supervisor had a habit of sending “URGENT” emails at all hours of the night, but especially between 10:00 and Midnight.

After asking some questions about my client’s boss and her late night emails, I discovered that the emails were almost never truly urgent, although they were almost always framed as such. I also learned that my client always responded to them, no matter what time it was.

Understandably, my client would sigh longly in therapy and say things like, “I just wish she would realize that people have lives outside of work and stop sending crazy emails in the middle of the night!”

I told my client that while we probably couldn’t change his supervisor’s level of self-awareness, there was a good chance we could change her behavior of sending emails late at night, and along with it, his anxiety/insomnia problems. And we were going to do it using differential reinforcement.

STEP 1: Identify the problem behavior.

The first step was to identify —and understand — the problem behavior. In this case: my client’s boss sending late-night emails. While identifying the problem behavior was straightforward, we went a step further and tried to understand that behavior on a deeper level. Specifically, why it occurred in the first place.

One of the things I suggested was that, unwittingly, my client had actually strengthened his supervisor’s behavior because he always replied immediately and thoroughly to each and every email no matter what time it was. As a result, he was “teaching” his supervisor to do the very thing he hated— email at off hours— because he was rewarding and reinforcing the behavior.

STEP 2: Decide on an alternative behavior.

When it came to choosing an alternative behavior to try and cultivate, my client decided on this: Send work emails before 9:00 PM. My client said that he actually didn’t mind responding to work emails outside of strict work hours so long as it wasn’t immediately before bed. Because he knew his supervisor liked to work in the evenings, he reasoned that getting her to simply start sending him emails a bit earlier would be both effective and realistic.

STEP 3: Teach the alternative behavior.

In order to make his supervisor aware of the new behavior he wanted her to engage in, we came up with a plan for him to set up a meeting with her to discuss his work. Specifically, he would explain to her that he was happy to respond to work emails in the evening if necessary. But because email late at night was interfering with his sleep (and therefore productivity at work the next day), he would prefer it if she only sent them before 9:00 PM.

My client was hesitant to do this because he worried that she would be upset or get angry or maybe just flat out refuse. But he summoned as much assertiveness as he could and scheduled the meeting anyway. Interestingly, he reported back that his boss “understood” his request but couldn’t “guarantee” that she wouldn’t send some late emails from time to time.

Understandably, my client was concerned about what might happen if she did send an “urgent” email late at night and he didn’t respond until the morning. We clarified that according to company policy he wasn’t technically required to do this. Furthermore, I explained that he didn’t really have any data on what would happen in this scenario because it had never happened —he had always responded!

So I recommended that we treat it like an experiment and at least gather some initial data. If it turned out to be a complete disaster, we could always go back to the drawing board.

STEP 4: Pick a powerful reinforcer.

The next step was to pick a meaningful reward that would encourage my client’s supervisor to take up and stick with the alternative behavior of sending earlier emails.

My client decided that the best reinforcer for this new behavior would be to respond to emails that came at the appropriate time with even more promptness and thoroughness. In fact, he set a strict series of notifications on his phone so that he would know instantly if she had emailed before 9:00 PM so he could respond right away.

STEP 5: Reinforce frequently and consistently.

Of course, long-term my client didn’t want work email notifications on his phone going off in the evenings. But we discussed how it was essential in the beginning to powerfully reinforce the alternative behavior. Then, once it had been established, we could ease up on those reinforcers and eventually remove them entirely.

The Result

In the first week or two, my client’s supervisor kept sending late night emails. And he described how difficult it was to get those emails and then not reply. In fact, his anxiety and insomnia actually got worse for a time because he worried about the effect not replying would have. But he held fast and resisted replying to the late night emails (i.e. he stopped reinforcing or feeding the undesired behavior).

And occasionally his supervisor would send an email or two earlier in the evening, to which he replied very promptly and very enthusiastically, going above and beyond to send “very high-quality” responses back to his boss.

Sure enough, by week three, the frequency of the late night emails was going down and the frequency of the early evening emails was going way up. Importantly, there were no major negative effects from my client not responding to the late night emails. He got a few slightly irritated follow-up emails for some of them, to which he politely replied the following mornings.

Within a month, my client’s anxiety and insomnia had decreased profoundly, and his supervisor had even commented several times about the improved quality of his work.

PARENTING: Using differential reinforcement to discourage rudeness and encourage polite manners in kids.

Vicky venter differential reinforcement parenting

As a parent, one behavior my toddler has that drives me nuts is interrupting my wife and I while we’re in the middle of a conversation. We’ll be sitting down for dinner, trying to catch up with each other after a long day, and all of a sudden my daughter will start bombarding us with exclamations like:

  • I want chocolate milk!
  • It’s too hot!!
  • Down down down… I want to get down!

Of course, this is normal toddler stuff. Every parent, I’m sure, can relate. It’s also mostly a reflection of my daughter’s perfectly normal desire to want to be included and get some attention from mom and dad.

Still, it would be nice if she could learn to be a bit more polite in the way she goes about trying to get what she wants, including our attention. So one of the ways I’ve tried (mostly successfully) to reduce interrupting behavior and increase politeness is to use differential reinforcement.

STEP 1: Identify the problem behavior.

This one’s pretty straightforward: verbal interruptions when my wife and I are talking to each other, especially during dinner.

STEP 2: Decide on an alternative behavior.

Importantly, the goal is not to have our kids sit silently for half an hour while my wife and I eat and have fully uninterrupted adult conversations. Kids are kids. What’s important to my wife and I is that they learn how to express themselves politely, not inhibit their wishes altogether.

So, the target alternative behavior we try to promote is for my daughter to say: “Excuse me mom and dad.”

STEP 3: Teach the alternative behavior.

Periodically we remind my daughter that yelling and interrupting are not very nice. And if she wants to talk to us while we’re talking, we’d be happy to. But the polite way to do it is to say, “Excuse me, mom and dad.”

In the beginning, we also had her repeat it back to us so she got practice literally saying it and hearing what it sounded like.

STEP 4: Pick a powerful reinforcer.

As usual for kids, parental attention —especially enthusiastic, undivided attention— is a huge reward and reinforcer.

So whenever my daughter does say “Excuse me, mom and dad” we try hard to immediately stop and reinforce that behavior by giving her our full attention and praising her for being polite.

STEP 5: Reinforce frequently and consistently.

In the beginning, it was important to be a little over-the-top in stopping our conversation and immediately reinforcing her polite behavior with lots of attention and praise.

But as she’s gotten better at it, we don’t necessarily stop immediately, or we’ll ask her to wait a minute while we finish and then get back to her.

Recall that in later stages, intermittent or variable reinforcement is actually more effective than consistent reinforcement.

The Result

Kids will be kids, and my daughter still interrupts from time to time. Differential reinforcement isn’t magic, after all.

But she is getting better about politely asking a question and saying “excuse me” when she wants something or would like to talk to us when we’re in the middle of a conversation. And thankfully, it’s happened without too much stress or aggravation on our part.

Summary and Key Points

Differential reinforcement is a powerful technique from behavioral psychology to positively change other people’s behavior.

By simultaneously withholding reinforcement from undesired behavior and applying it to an alternative desired behavior, we can effectively shape and modify another person’s behavior without the need for more disturbing (and probably less effective) means such as punishment, nagging, or threats.

There are 5 basic steps to follow in applying differential reinforcement:

  1. Identify the problem behavior.
  2. Decide on an alternative behavior.
  3. Teach the alternative behavior.
  4. Pick a powerful reinforcer.
  5. Reinforce frequently and consistently, then gradually fade out the reinforcement.


Add Yours

My respect for you has tremendously increased, Nick. You have no idea what good you’re doing to the society by writing these so-effective techniques to solve daily problems. I myself have been having problems with my classmates regarding certain behaviors and I’m unable to tell them anything. But unknowingly I have been using these techniques to let them know I don’t like those behaviours. I am also a student of clinical psychology and I have loved how you explained the techniques with simple examples in simple words. Thanks a ton, man!

This was right on point for me, and helped with expanding my thoughts on the subject differential reinforcements.

It’s not very often I read an entire article. As my wife and I are struggling in our marriage, and the kids are responding accordingly, this article has provided some timely insight into immediate steps that can be taken to improve the home, mommy, and DADDY. Thank you for sharing this.

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