Defining Moment

The Defining Moment, Part 11: Positive & Negative

“You Keep on Using That Word…” – Inigo Montoya

When someone says something discouraging, have you ever remarked – either out loud, or to yourself – that “negative reinforcement doesn’t work very well” or something to that effect?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever done this – and don’t worry, you’re safe, no one is watching. It’s ok, I’ve done it too. But some of you are smiling, because you know what I’m about to say, and the rest of you are wondering what the big deal is. That’s fine, this is one of my personal crusades, along with championing the Oxford comma and the acting prowess of Keanu Reeves. Say it with me:

Positive adds. Negative subtracts. Good and bad have nothing to do with it.

Vedomatic 9 volt type 006 P Long life batteryThe idea of “positive” and “negative” reinforcement is one of the most misunderstood and misused concepts in psychology. It’s usually used in behavioral conditioning situations. However, it is not the idea that making someone feel good is “positive” and making them feel bad is “negative.” These are interpretations that humans put on the words. Positive and negative reinforcement has as much to do with good and bad as a plus or minus sign in arithmetic.

Which is good: 3+4 or 6-2? The question doesn’t really make any sense, does it? Same with positive and negative reinforcement. Positive simply means you add something (“Here, have a cookie!”). Negative reinforcement means you take something away (“No more cookies for you!“). Those examples may seem to be following the good/bad paradigm, but it’s easy to flip them. How about the positive reinforcement of playing the Trololo song at high volume on repeat? Makes for a pretty good “enhanced interrogation technique”, but I wouldn’t call it “good.” If you changed your behavior in the way I wanted and I turned off the music, that would be negative reinforcement – but I sincerely doubt anyone would consider it bad.

Now you know, and you can join the growing ranks of those who do not misuse the phrase.

What’s the Link to the Defining Moment?

We’ve already covered your gut reaction to the Defining Moment. The idea of good/bad in terms of feeling has already been determined.

This frees us up to take a look at the results of whatever it is we did with a clear head. We can start to look at the positive and negative effects of having the defining moment not as a “good/bad” dichotomy, but rather simply as two questions:

What did this add to my life?


What did this remove from my life?

Like the other exercises in the Defining Moment process, I like to do this with a big blank piece of paper, just writing things in. “I no longer wonder what skydiving feels like,” negative. “I have a sprained ankle from not landing quite right,” positive. “I have a new podcast to connect with other people,” positive. “Diana became my fifth Patron! She rocks!”, positive. “There’s so much more writing to do, I don’t have as much time to read for pleasure,” negative.

By writing things out like this you can get a more accurate view of the actual effects of that Defining Moment in your life. That will be essential in a few chapters, when you ask the all-important question:

Do I want to do this again?

But that’s foreshadowing. There’s a few more things to do before that, and we’ll go on to the next step in a week, when we look at just how good we were at predicting the outcome. Here’s a hint, but don’t stress it: if you’re like most people, not very.

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