Misunderstanding reward and punishment in obesity and fitness

I frequently run into the contention that enlisting food–typically dessert or other treat foods–as a reward for someone who is trying to lose weight is a terrible idea because it will make the person like food more. The theory here, apparently, is that we learn to associate whatever is used as a reward with good feelings, and so it becomes more desirable. The same supposedly goes for punishment, in the opposite direction: We end up developing a strong distaste for what is used to punish us. One fitness expert I’ve been following on Twitter, and for whom I have tremendous respect, has been arguing lately that when gym teachers punish children for not following directions by making them, say, run laps, the kids end up being “programmed” to hate exercise.

Though almost everyone seems to accept this reasoning–apparently the notion just strikes people as intuitively obvious–there’s really badly muddled thinking behind it. The basic problem is that this thinking confuses the causes and effects of reward and punishment. In general, you won’t at all like something more because it’s enlisted as a reward, or dislike it more because it’s used as a punishment. Why would you? If your boss decided to reward your excellent performance with the honor of emptying the department trash, would you start to like emptying the trash? I doubt it. If your boss said that every time you fail to meet your annual objectives he was going to punish you by sending to Hawaii for a week, would you come to hate going to Hawaii? I don’t think so. Having something enlisted as a punishment or reward doesn’t in general have a big effect on how much you like or dislike it. It’s the other way around: something serves as an effective punishment or reward because you already like or dislike it. If you like something that someone tries to use on you as a punishment, then it won’t be a punishment, essentially by definition. The person may intend to punish you, but he’s actually rewarding you. The same holds for trying to reward you with something you hate–you won’t end up liking it, you’ll just find it very unrewarding.

An effective reward or punishment changes how you feel about the behavior being rewarded or punished, not how you feel about the reward or punishment itself. If your boss sends you to Hawaii to reward your excellent performance, you might well feel much more motivated to perform your job well. But it won’t cause you to like going to Hawaii, you already liked going to Hawaii, which is why your boss was clever to chose it as a reward. If she chooses to reward you with the job of emptying the trash, you won’t be programmed into disliking emptying the trash, you already disliked it, which is why it was a really dumb choice of reward, and will not likely inspire you to work harder. The same goes for using food as a reward or running laps as a punishment. You like the food treat, so you’ll work harder to get it as a reward–but it won’t cause you to like the food more, you already liked it. If a kid likes running laps, then the coach is being foolish to make the kid run laps as a punishment–it won’t be a punishment at all, and won’t make the kid dislike running laps. If a kid already dislikes running laps, then the coach is indeed effectively punishing the kid by making her run laps–but it won’t be programming the kid to hate running laps, the kid already didn’t like running laps.

Now, there can be complicating circumstances that blur the picture a bit. For example, someone can turn something you like into a punishment by making you overdo it. For example, you might like running, but someone could punish you by making you run brutally long distances in the cold and rain, and that might indeed change your feelings about running. But you didn’t like running brutally long distances in the cold and rain in the first place, so it’s not really the same thing as being made to dislike something you liked. Also, having someone want to punish you might fill you with guilt, shame or even self-loathing, and those feelings might be intense enough to end up tainting your feelings about whatever it is that is nominally enlisted as punishment, even if it were something you liked–so in that sense, you can end up being made to dislike what’s being used to punish you. But if you’re feeling guilt, shame or self-loathing over your behavior, then that’s the real punishment–it’s an internal, self-inflicted one–and the imposed external “punishment” is really just something superfluous that you’re being accidentally conditioned to associate with those feelings. (To get a bit technical, it’s more Pavlovian reflexive conditioning than Skinnerian punishment, which is really a different animal. You’ll know what I mean if you’re familiar with the 1971 Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange, based on the novel by Anthony Burgess, where Beethoven’s music becomes accidentally associated with the feelings of nausea and dread forced on the protagonist when he’s exposed to violence.) And of course all this works the same way for reward, in the opposite direction. But this sort of accidental conditioning with superfluous reward and punishment isn’t likely to happen in most food-treat and lap-running situations, or in most everyday situations. If you feel that badly about having done something you shouldn’t have, you’re probably just not going to do it very often, so no one will feel a need to tack on a misguided “punishment.” If you feel great after you do a certain thing, you’re probably going to do it on your own, without requiring a food treat.

Actually, food is a great reward in a weight-loss or fitness program. Behavioral experts who have studied fitness and/or obesity–in other words, real experts on reward and punishment, and who by the way tend to be in great shape themselves–routinely use food as a reward. One researcher told me about an obese, previously sedentary child who is now losing weight in part through daily walking. How did the parents get the child to take up walking? By allowing him to pick out a small, favorite food treat at the store–as long as the child walks there and back with the father. One of the top obesity-focused behavioral researchers in the country told me he rewards himself with a mango smoothie after a run, and that he finds himself thinking about that smoothie when he’s about halfway through the run, which helps pull him along–and he helps others keep to their exercise plans with a similar use of food treats. I always reward myself for completing a workout with a small sundae-like treat, and absolutely find it helps get me through the last few sets of crunches or pull-ups or whatever.

Now I do happen to think conventional PE classes (where they haven’t been lost to budget cuts) are a potential nightmare to lifetime fitness, and do indeed cause some kids to dislike participating in exercise. But that’s not because exercise is routinely used as punishment in these classes. The exercise is usually meant to be fun and to make kids feel good, because the gym teacher herself probably always enjoyed and felt great about participating in sports and exercise. But the grueling training for fitness tests, the intensely competitive ball sports, the difficult gymnastics, the exhausting wrestling matches–this is all stuff that many kids don’t like doing, so these kids are unintentionally being punished for participating. Even kids who do like this stuff aren’t likely to keep it up much beyond high school. Instead, I think PE classes should emphasize establishing moderate, comfortable, enjoyable exercise as a daily lifetime habit, with the more intense, athletic, competitive stuff perhaps offered as an additional option for those who truly enjoy it. Taking it easy on kids in PE class wouldn’t be promoting athletics as strongly, but we’re not much of a nation of adult athletes anyway. Better off settling just to get us to not be sedentary as adults. If America were by and large a nation of walkers–or bikers, joggers, casual weightlifters, dancers, or any kind of physical-activity-doers–I firmly believe, as do many experts, that we wouldn’t have an obesity crisis, and we’d be far, far healthier on average.

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