Last week, we focused on the parent, specifically the mother, as a social reinforcer for certain behaviors in children. Keeping in line with an external individual as the means and focus to ultimately alter the child, we will now look at the child’s peers as the social reinforcers. However, the matters we talk about in this post have prominent differences and are of quite a different nature than that of the last post. One obvious difference is the age gap between the reinforcer and the child. The child’s peers are usually the same or around the same age as the child. Another difference is the social role peers play. While the mother’s role is to raise the child, the peers role is to merely provide companionship, support, and be a social equal. The relationship between the child and peer greatly contrasts the relationship between the child and parent. Therefore, how the child views the reinforcer is much different if the reinforcer is a peer or if the reinforcer is a parent. The time spent with the reinforcer also differs. As children grow up and begin to go to school or become involved in extracurricular activities, they sometimes begin to spend more time with their peers than with their parents. All these are important differences to keep in mind while this post unfolds.
Patterson and Anderson’s article reveals how peers can serve as agents dispensing social reinforcers. They hypothesize that “after extended experience with a peer group, the child responsive to social reinforcers from the peer group would be expected to show high frequency of behaviors valued by this group” because those are the behaviors that are most likely to elicit social reinforcers from the peer (Patterson & Anderson, 952). Therefore, their first step is to prove that peers can in fact serve as social reinforcers.
To do so, Patterson and Anderson show that the child’s peer can be the social reinforcer to condition a simple motor response. They use a box with two identical holes on the top into which the child can drop marbles. The child is instructed to pick up the marbles one at a time and drop them into any hole they want. They can drop as many marbles they want and in any order. The frequency of response into either hole is recorded in respect to time. After 100 marbles are dropped into the box, the experimenters establish a minimally stable baseline estimate of choice behavior; in other words, they determine which hole is preferred by the subject. The subject then sits with the box right in front of him or her while facing one of their peers. The peer serves as the reinforcing agent and is instructed by the experimenter through an earpiece to read the words “good,” “yes,” “great,” “ok,” “fine,” or “very good” when the subject places a marble into the least preferred hole. Patterson and Anderson obtain the measure of preference change by computing X/(A+B) (where X is the frequency of the least preferred hole, A is the frequency of one of the holes, and B is the frequency of the other hole) before and after the reinforcement from the peer takes place. The difference between these two values then “provides a measure of the magnitude of shift in preference” (Patterson & Anderson, 954). Their data, which shows a large shift in preference, supports their hypothesis that a peer can act as a social reinforcer such that “the peer is clearly effective in changing the behavior of the subject” (Patterson & Anderson, 955).
Patterson and Anderson then extrapolate this phenomenon to say that if “the child is responsive to social reinforcers delivered by the peer group,” then “the child will show an acquisition of the behaviors valued by the peer group” (Patterson & Anderson, 958). The child will be rewarded depending on the desirability of his or her behaviors and thus, the more desirable the trait, the more frequent this behavior will become.
Although this is a very interesting and exciting hypothesis, I would like to point out some limitations. They are not to depreciate Patterson and Anderson’s finding or discredit their argument. They are instead just some things to keep in mind, something future researchers can address. Firstly, testing only peers as reinforcers may not be enough to provide sufficient data. They do not, in addition and for comparison, use a parent, teacher, stranger, or other type of non-peer as an agent to disperse the same reinforcement. Therefore, it is difficult to claim that the success of the reinforcement is due to the reinforcer being a peer specifically. It could merely be because someone, anyone, is reinforcing the child’s behavior. In regards to the apparatus that is used, there might be an inaccurate sense of hole bias. If the child wishes to place the marbles in the holes following a certain pattern (for example: right, right, left, right, right, left…) this can give a sense that he or she prefers one hole (the right hole) when in actuality, this is not the case. The child merely prefers the pattern. In addition, the type of reinforcement received in the environmental setting is a bit unrealistic to the reinforcement the child would get in the natural setting. The peer reinforcer only states mundane words (“good,” “yes,” “great,” “ok,” “fine,” or “very good”) in the experiment, while in a real life setting, a peer reinforcer might have much more active response. This could include more colorful and descriptive verbal approvals, expressive body gestures, and more personal interaction.
Lastly, it is important to always have a control group in which to rule out any spontaneous preference of the other hole. For example, a child may seem to respond to the peer reinforcement when in actuality, the child may just feel like putting the marble in the hole that so happens to be the least preferred.
Patterson, G. R., & Anderson, D. (1964). Peers as social reinforcers. Child Development, 35(3), 951-960.