Negative reinforcement – when punishment is actually a reward

Okay, so this is a follow-up post to the one I wrote about the behavioral psychology of loot random drops.

In that post, I described how random loot systems can be reinforcing to increase the amount of time people spend playing the game. In this post, I’ll describe how sometimes things that are supposed to be punishment are actually rewarding to people, and how not responding is the best way to deal with people who are bothering you (in or out of the game).

Lets take a forum posting example that Ghostcrawler does a lot. Here’s one from a shadow priest thread:

Do not fish for blue threads. Do not bump threads. Every time you say: “We don’t care, we’re just going to do it anyway,” you’re going to get that response.

Here’s his attempt at discouraging threads that just ask for blue posts with half the posts being /bump, and the OP usually saying something like “QQ stop ignoring me”.

You would think that his telling people to stop posting in that manner would be punishing, right?  I mean, he didn’t answer the question people wanted him to at all.  However, a lot of the time, those people just want to be acknowledged and even saying “stop it” is still attention in some way or another. So, telling people not to fish for blue threads just encourages them to do it more. “but ignoring them doesn’t seem to work, either!” you think…

Remember from my other post – how reinforcement schedules work? By rewarding any of the trollish posts in that forum even on relatively infrequent intervals, it tells them that if they try long enough and hard enough, eventually their trolling might pay off. The WoW role forums are a case of any attention being good attention, and thus they are receiving negative reinforcement for their trolling (thus, intead of the desired effect of trolling going down, it just remains steady or increases, in some sort of viscious cycle).

Negative reinforcement happens sometimes with things like barking dogs. My parents have a dog that barks a lot, and they keep it in their backyard most of the time (it’s mostly an outside doog). So, whe it barks and it annoys them, they’ll go to the back window and tell the dog to be quiet. It works for a while, and then the dog starts back up again, so they get up and go give the dog more attention by telling it to be quiet again (negative reinforcement), and the dog just keeps going back to barking and never unlearns this bad habit of barking at the door. The act of my parents yelling at the dog is reinforcing for my parents because the dog stops for a while, and it’s also reinforcing for the dog because the dog got a little bit of what it wanted (attention).

but surely forum trolls are different than barking dogs… well, no not really. So, what’s the lesson we learned here today? Mostly, that the only way to stop the trolls is to stop feeding the trolls (or maybe to give them permanent forum bans – there are ways to stop bad behaviors that involve things which aren’t that rewarding), however I also think that it’s really not possible to stop forum trolling, as trolling seems to be mostly what the forums were designed for in the first place…. However, this idea of negative reinforcement is the same principle for the people who respond to drama on their guild forums, or respond to in-game harrassment: giving the person attention (regardless of what kind of attention it is) will just mean that they won’t ever stop what they are doing to bother you.

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One Comment

  1. Posted July 1, 2009 at 2:04 am | Permalink

    Being a teacher, I see and practice many forms of reinforcement. I think you would enjoy reading a book by Alfie Kohn entitled ‘Punished by Rewards’. This book looks at the damage that can be caused by reinforcement of any kind when internal motivation already exists as well as the impact of reinforcement on un-motivated people.

    I think it’s generally safe to say that any type of attention (positive or negative) is reinforcing behavior within most of us. For instance, people comment on my blog and I post more. I comment here and I get more referrals to my blog from your site. These people may be going there to say “Good job Rel, keep it up!” or “DIAF you jerk. You’re wrong!” (yeah I got one guy like that because what I said went against all of his massive experience). Either way, I’m motivated to continue posting on my blog.

    Forum trolls in particular are much the same way. They get as much satisfaction out of being called idiots as they do out of people agreeing with them. They don’t care if their impact was positive or negative. They only care about impacting someone’s life. That’s why you see the typical “Oh it’s just a game, you must be a real loser to let me get under your skin about it” post in almost every troll’s repertoire.

    Best advice to non-trolls: Ignore them. Not with /ignore, because that’s slightly rewarding for a troll too. Simply decide to not care what they say and move on with your life. I mean, after all, it’s just a game right . . . you shouldn’t let them bother you! ;-) (see what i did there?!)