Difference Between Reinforcement and Bribery

As a professional in the field of Behavior Analysis, I often hear- “Well, aren’t you just bribing your kids to get them to do what you want?” Not exactly!

I will say, the BIGGEST difference between bribery and reinforcement is the timing! If your kid is already engaging in some cray cray behavior and you are trying to give them a treat to calm them down- Bribery… However, if you provide the treat after they calm down- Reinforcement!


Is the use of a reinforcer, often given in advance…” (Malott & Shane, 2013).


Occurs when a stimulus change immediately follows a response and increases the future frequency of that type of behavior in similar conditions.” (Cooper, 2007)— (Basically, you provide some sort of praise/treat AFTER a behavior to increase the likelihood that ‘said behavior’ will continue to occur in the future… Whoop whoop!)

Let me set the stage. Let’s say your child struggles to get through homework. Before homework is even pulled out, you can say that AFTER successful completion of the homework, he can earn ice cream (ice cream=reinforcement)! However, he has to show that he completes the entire homework assignment first before he earns his treat.

Kid with Unicorn Ice cream cone

Bribery would be stating, “I will give you ice cream RIGHT NOW if you finish your homework!” Now, a potential issue with bribery is that there is no guarantee that the homework will actually be completed ANNNNND you may be reinforcing some challenging behaviors in the process. You are only hoping that the desired treat will be enough of a motivator to entice the child to complete the undesired task. That is a lot of unknowns happening there!

Can you see the difference? It is all in the timing :).

Now, I am a mom too and I get it! There have been times, especially in social settings, when my husband and I have resorted to bribery. Sometimes you go into survival mode and you just need to get through the day. It also seems that the bribery route is the path of least resistance but your future self will thank you for using reinforcement over bribery. When you reinforce appropriate behaviors rather than give in to challenging behaviors, you are showing your child that you would rather see the favorable behaviors which will increase over time! And we all know that we would appreciate that in the long run :).


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis   (2nd ed.). Columbus, OH: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Malott, R.W., & Shane, J.R. (2013). Principles of Behavior (7th ed.). New York: Routledge.

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