Reinforcement on the Radio

What will NPR do this time?
By Karen B. London PhD, October 2009, Updated June 2021

Each time KNAU, my local NPR station, has a pledge drive, they try a new combination of reinforcement strategies. As a dog trainer, I am naturally very interested in reinforcement since half of operant conditioning consists of reinforcement. (The other half is punishment, but thankfully, positive punishment is used in dog training less than ever, and never, as far as I know, by any NPR stations.)

Last year, KNAU emphasized negative reinforcement, which is the removal of an aversive stimulus in response to the performance of a certain behavior. (The classic example of negative reinforcement is the cessation of the loud buzzing noise as soon you put your seat belt on.) Specifically, NPR’s pitch was all about shortening the pledge drive. Their refrain was along the lines of “Do your part. If you give early, the pledge drive will end sooner.” Besides being effective for many people (I called right away!) they get points in my book for acknowledging that the pledge drive, however necessary, is annoying, which is one form of being aversive.

This fall, the tactics seem all about positive reinforcement. KNAU’s pledge drive has a theme this year: “Feed Your Mind, Feed a Family.” If you pledge at least $35 dollars, a donation will be made to provide 70 meals for needy families through a local food bank. Since people find feeding hungry people reinforcing, this may be encouraging people to contribute. Other forms of positive reinforcement include (if you donate by a certain date) the chance to win a computer or the chance to stay on a 75-foot luxury houseboat on Lake Powell with 12 friends, and a variety of other smaller prizes.

KNAU is trying to get people to perform a behavior—donating money—and like any desirable behavior, it will be performed more frequently if people get reinforced for doing so. Technically, reinforcement makes a behavior more likely to occur in the future, so if NPR can make us feel good when we donate money this time, the theory says that we will be more likely to contribute again.

Reinforcement in real life. It’s not just for dogs!

 Image: Shutterstock

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life