Reinforcer or Reward? What Difference Does it Make?

semantics cartoonSemantics is the study of the meaning of words.  And I’m a word nerd.  I admit it.  I love words.  I love playing with words, using words, and knowing the meaning and proper use of words.

There are people who use the word “semantics” as a pejorative to denigrate the “splitting of hairs” between the uses of different words.  But each word has a specific meaning and connotation and each word is, therefore, used differently because they each have a different “feel” to them.

There are synonyms for words, but each synonym is slightly different, having a different specific meaning, although similar to its synonyms, and therefore each has a different usage and feel.

What does this have to do with clicker training?  Sometimes, quite a lot.positive-reinforcers1

The scientific term for giving an animal food after marking the correct behavior is “reinforcement”.  Reinforcement has a specific meaning – it reinforces or strengthens the behavior that it follows.  Behavior is driven by its consequences.  A reinforcer is something that increases the likelihood that a specific behavior or response will occur. Synonyms for “to reinforce” include:  to strengthen, augment, or increase, to make more effective or forcible.

I prefer this term, reinforcing, because of its specific meaning.

However, there are others, both so-called clicker trainers and those who don’t clicker train, who use the term “reward”.

“Reward” does not mean the same thing as “reinforcer”.  The definition of reward is:  “a thing given in recognition of one’s service, effort, or achievement”.  The synonyms are:  recompense, prize, award, honor, decoration, bonus, premium, bounty, present, gift, payment.

None of these have any correlation or similar meaning to “reinforcer”.  They do not convey the idea of strengthening a behavior or of increasing the future occurrence of that behavior.

However, “reward” makes US feel good.  Like we’re being really nice to our learners.  We’re bestowing a prize, award, or honor, present or gift upon them.  Doesn’t that just make you feel so good to do that?  “It’s better to give than to receive”, right?  It feels good to give to someone else.  We want to be our learner’s best friend.  We want them to like us.

All that’s great.


That’s not the point of marker or clicker training.  The point of operant conditioning is to strengthen desired behavior.

The other problem with using the word “reward” is that those who want to undermine clicker training also use the word “reward”.  Have you ever heard someone say, “the release is the reward”?

IS a release a”reward”?  It is reinforcing, assuming the desired behavior has happened and it happens more frequently in the future.  But is it a reward?  Is it really a “prize, award, honor, bonus, premium, bounty, present, or gift”?

Or is the word “reward” being used here to manipulate how YOU feel about it?  Does your learner feel that it’s a “gift” to get the release from the pressure?  Or is it just relief?  Does “relief” mean the same thing as “reward”?  I don’t think so.  Does it “feel” the same to you – relief and reward?employee-reward-and-recognition-systems-212

It feels good to US to say that the release is a reward.  It makes US feel good about ourselves – that we’re being good to our learners.  But are we being “good to them”?  Or are we just “not being mean”?

For me, I’ll stick with “reinforcer” rather than “reward”.  “Reward” just doesn’t do it for me.  “Reinforcer” has the weight behind it and the right definition.

Dr. Deb Bennett says, “Sloppy language indicates sloppy thinking.”  In this case, at least, I think she’s right.  What do you think?


About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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5 Responses to Reinforcer or Reward? What Difference Does it Make?

  1. Peggy says:

    Really, really timely and so well written. Thank you.


  2. Max Easey says:

    I love words too and this combination of them hits the spot! Nice one Laurie and to the point as usual!


  3. Thank you all for the kind comments.


  4. Maasa says:

    Reblogged this on Click. Treat. Empower. and commented:
    This is a great blog of clarification of two words, reward and reinforcer.
    Thank you for a wonderful blog!!!


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