Why Negative Reinforcement Seems to Work Better Than Positive Reinforcement
I had a pit in my stomach. It was time for my beating. I just wanted to get it over with. Our call was scheduled for 3:00pm, but they were late, as usual, to let me stew in the anxiety of what was to come. At exactly 3:07pm Eastern Standard Time my phone rang.
I was a media buyer for an agency that represented the movie studios in the southeastern United States. I was young, broke, naive and excited to be involved with such a glamorous industry. When I was hired, I was warned that my client contacts could be a bit “direct” over the phone. And every now and then I would have “one of those days.” I was then told, “Whatever you do, don’t talk back to them. Just take it.”
After the second ring I reluctantly picked up the phone. It was my client. There were no pleasantries exchanged. I was immediately hit with a barrage of expletives that would make a sailor blush. The three women on the other end of the line were screaming at the top of their lungs. They called me every name in the book and made me feel utterly incompetent. My heart raced, my head pounded and I took the verbal abuse. I kept my mouth shut and just took it like a good soldier. I was having one of those days.
As it turned out, I would have “one of those days” about three times a week.
I began to believe that I was terrible at my job when one day a buyer from another market called me. She was in tears. She had been beaten down by the studio executives and commanded to reach out to me to learn how to improve her media buys. She said they often compared her work to mine. Soon, other buyers from around the country were calling me for advice. That’s how I learned that I was good at my job.
I never received the carrot, only the stick. My clients were under the misconception that negative reinforcement works. It doesn’t… at least not on its own.
Because of my mentor status, I had regular contact with the other buyers in the studio network. That interaction was enlightening. What I learned was this: a buyer wouldn’t hit his or her stride (aka peak performance) until they had been on the job for six months. Regardless of the amount of yelling, screaming, information, or training, their capabilities would not reach their full potential until the sixth-month mark. At that point, they would find their average or “mean” performance. That was as good as they would get. Some buys would be better than others, but they would always regress to the mean.
If I knew this, then surely our contacts at the studio knew it. So, the question was, why did they insist on beating us down? It could have been that they were simply unpleasant people, but I believe it was because they have fallen for the logical fallacy known as post hoc ergo propter hoc, meaning correlation proves causation. Here’s how it works:
Negative reinforcement appears to be more effective than positive reinforcement because we tend to see a positive outcome. However, the positive outcome was not actually caused by the negative reinforcement.
When we do something well we receive praise (positive reinforcement), but when we do something poorly, we receive an admonishment (negative reinforcement). When someone receives praise for a job well done, they often perform worse the next time around. Conversely, when someone does something poorly and receives admonishment, they perform better the next time around. Why? Because they regress to the mean. In other words, their performance reverts back to their average.
The original behavior (either better or worse than their average performance) was an anomaly. We will eventually revert back to our normal behavior regardless of being praised or admonished. The problem is, only admonishment is followed by “better” performance. Therefore, it seems to work better than praise or rewards.
My studio clients made a difficult job worse by their constant scolding. Their ranting and raving didn’t produce better media buys, it only made the media folks miserable… until they decided not to take it anymore and left. This created an environment of constant turnover and as I mentioned earlier, buyers didn’t reach their peak performance potential until around six months in. Therefore, the media supporting these movies was never as good as it could have been and the box office receipts probably suffered as a result.
After about a year on the job, I finally hit my boiling point with that foul-mouthed client. On one of our beat-down calls, I let them have it with a verbal torrent of my own. Ironically, it was like a scene out of a movie. As I hung up the phone with a sigh of satisfaction, my boss came storming into my office. He shouted, “What have you done?!?!” He had heard every word from down the hall.
We kept the account. I kept my job. And the client never raised their collective voices at me again. Eventually I moved on, but by that time I had outlasted all of my contemporaries around the country. Churn and burn… or is it burn then churn?
My studio contacts would have been better served by following Aristotle’s advice: “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” If not perfection, at least it ensures that your peak performers will revert to their mean… and hopefully, stick around a little longer.
Healthy criticism is necessary to improve performance, but remember, negative reinforcement isn’t doing anyone any favors.