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The Power of Positive Consequences

Oct. 14, 2020
When you thank someone for their safe behavior you’re increasing the probability their safe behavior will continue.

B. F. Skinner, the founder of the research and scholarship domain of applied behavioral science (ABS), communicated and validated the basic but profound principle––selection by consequences. Indeed, Skinner and his followers have demonstrated consistently that behavior occurs to gain positive consequences and to avoid or escape negative consequences, and behavior can be modified by changing the consequences that follow it. Moreover, behavioral scientists have demonstrated consistently that positive consequences are more effective than negative consequences at improving behavior.

A positive consequence that increases the frequency of the behavior it follows is a positive reinforcer, and a negative consequence that decreases the frequency of the behavior it follows is considered a punisher. These behavior-change contingencies are labeled positive reinforcement and punishment, respectively. If these consequences do not influence the behavior they follow as intended, the terms reward and penalty are the appropriate labels for these positive and negative consequences, respectively.

Supportive vs. Corrective Feedback

Substantial ABS research has demonstrated the critical role of behavior-based feedback at improving behavior. Practice does not make perfect; only with relevant behavioral consequences can performance improve. These behavior-improvement consequences can be natural or intrinsic (e.g., when an athlete sees the results of swinging a baseball bat, a golf club, or tennis racket) or extrinsic (e.g., when a teacher or coach provides behavior-based feedback).

When extrinsic feedback acknowledges desirable behavior, it is considered “supportive feedback,” and when it pinpoints specific room for improvement, it is labeled “corrective feedback.” Although ABS research has demonstrated substantial motivational and performance advantages of using supportive over corrective feedback, correction for undesirable behavior occurs much more often than does support for desirable behavior.

Interpersonal coaching with supportive feedback for safe behavior and corrective feedback for at-risk behavior is critical for optimal success of a behavior-based safety (BBS) process. However, many BBS programs skip the coaching-feedback component, and only enter the behavioral observations in a computer file for analysis, group comparisons and public posting. Moreover, many of those companies who include interpersonal coaching in their BBS process do not train the observers to coach properly––to convey more supportive than corrective feedback, and to be nondirective when delivering corrective feedback.

Giving and Receiving Gratitude

Considerable research indicates that gratitude—the person-state of feeling grateful—significantly increases subjective well-being (SWB) or life satisfaction. More specifically, researchers have found gratitude to enhance positive emotions and to activate a sense of interpersonal belonging, while decreasing distress and depression. In fact, people are more likely to help others—perform acts of kindness—when they feel grateful.

So, how can we increase perceptions of gratitude and experience the beneficial side-effects of this person-state? Safety leaders know the answer—offer a sincere statement of personal recognition for another individual’s desirable behavior. Indeed, when you thank someone for the performance of safe or health-related behavior you’re increasing the probability the safe behavior will continue and you’re enhancing SWB.

Yet, surveys have found that people are less likely to express gratitude at work than in any other place. In fact, in a survey conducted by the John Templeton Foundation, 60% of more than 2,000 respondents reported that they never or very rarely thank anyone at work; only 10% said they express interpersonal gratitude at work on a given day, and 74% said they never or rarely express gratitude to their boss or supervisor.

A Reciprocal Benefit

Who experiences a boost in SWB when one person thanks another for desirable behavior observed? Obviously, the individual receiving the recognition appreciates the positive interpersonal exchange and likely experiences a boost in SWB, competence and self-motivation, and feels a positive connection with the benefactor—the person who expressed gratitude.

How does the expression of gratitude affect the benefactor? Readers know the answer because they’ve been there, and have experienced the reality of the expression, “It’s better to give than to receive.” Giving recognition or showing appreciation enhances one’s state of gratefulness and therefore his or her SWB. For example, research has demonstrated one powerful way to increase personal gratitude and SWB is to write a thank-you letter to a benefactor and then read it to that individual.

Diverse Domains of Psychological Science

Two prominent disciplines within psychological science have researched the power of positive consequences, and each promotes the use of positive consequences from a different perspective and purpose. As reviewed above, ABS researchers and practitioners apply a positive consequence (e.g., a tangible reward or supportive feedback) following a target behavior in order to increase occurrences of that behavior.

In contrast, the psychological science of positive psychology—initiated in the 1990s by Martin Seligman to study determinants of happiness—advocates for the application of positive consequences to enhance SWB, not to influence behavior. Thus, two domains of psychological science promote the delivery of a positive consequence like gratitude—one to improve behavior and the other to benefit attitude or mood state.

Let’s consider some insight from these diverse disciplines for improving safety, health and human welfare. Given the mood-state benefits of expressing interpersonal gratitude, it would be advantageous if the delivery of a positive consequence to increase the frequency of a desirable behavior included an explicit expression of gratitude. For example, supportive feedback that acknowledges an individual’s safe behavior should include a statement of sincere appreciation—“Your PPE use for that job is right on, including the wearing of a COVID-prevention mask. Thank you so much for setting the safe example for others.”

Similarly, a communication of gratitude to boost someone’s SWB can have a behavioral impact on both the beneficiary and the benefactor, depending on how the gratitude is delivered and received. Does the verbal expression of gratitude specify a desirable behavior, and is it followed by an appreciative “You’re very welcome” or the more common and habitual “No problem.”

Actively Caring for People

This article illustrated the behavioral and attitudinal benefits of delivering positive consequences, derived from two diverse domains of psychological science—ABS and positive psychology. Whether the purpose is to improve behavior or SWB, positive consequences accompanied with an expression of gratitude benefits both behavior and mood state.

Thus, research informs us to increase the occurrence of a relatively low frequency behavior—acknowledge other people’s desirable behavior with a statement of sincere appreciation or gratitude. Such verbal behavior is quite common between parents and their young children, but comparatively rare between adults.

A significant increase in reciprocal expressions of gratitude between supervisors and employees, teachers and students, parents and their adult offspring, police officers and citizens, and between safety/health professionals and their clients would be a “game changer”—a significant step closer to achieving an actively caring for people culture.

E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., Alumni Distinguished Professor, just completed his 50th year as a teacher and researcher in the Department of Psychology at Virginia Tech, and director of the Center for Applied Behavior Systems. He is a co-founder and senior partner of Safety Performance Solutions Inc. and GellerAC4P Inc. (


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