American Culture and Positive Reinforcement: What’s the Connection?

“Reach for the stars. And if you ever get there, it means you didn’t reach high enough.”

My dad

Recently a client asked me about the cultural significance of “positive reinforcement” in America. In other words, what (if any) American values drive the popularity of this approach to developing employees, children, etc.?

I didn’t have a good answer. So I’m reaching out to my wise and esteemed readers for your take on the issue.

But first some background for context.

The reason the question was even asked is because Japanese and Americans who work together struggle with this issue: Americans like everything to be positive and happy (“Good job!”), while Japanese dwell on the empty part of the glass (“You must do better!”). To get your head around the Japanese approach, think of the young Zen pupil being whacked into enlightenment with the swing of the Master’s stick.

Needless to say the “whack-subordinates-over-the-head” motivation technique doesn’t fly with American employees. In extreme cases it leads to open conflict.

And here’s the problem: American employees who work for Japanese transplants often don’t understand that the very essence of the kaizen philosophy (“continuous improvement”) is negative in nature; it’s the ongoing, never-ending search for the next dragon to slay. (See Learning to Love Problems)

A Japanese executive once told me that patting people on the back was a waste of time because it didn’t help improve the person or organization. This particular manager was notorious for riding subordinates hard, especially the ones who showed the most potential.

So here’s my confusion. Based on the above criteria I can only conclude that my dad was Japanese! And so were my two older siblings, my elementary school nuns, my Pop Warner football coaches, the Jesuit priests who ran my high school, not to mention my Company Commander in boot camp.

What happened to MY positive reinforcement?

Then I started thinking. It wasn’t just me. All my childhood friends had the same kind of hard-ass dad–think Red Foreman on That Seventies Show:

Eric: Dad, why do bad things always happen to me?

Red: Because you’re a DUMBASS!

That’s how fathers talked to their sons back then. In dad’s mind it was his fatherly duty to toughen me up for the cruel world that lay ahead. (Only moms were allowed to be nurturing and positive.)

With this backdrop I’ll throw out my questions for discussion:

1) Is “positive reinforcement” an American (Western) phenomenon rooted in certain traditional values, for example rugged individualism, self-reliance, manifest destiny, etc.?

2) Or is it a recent phenomenon embraced by a new generation of Americans? For example, driven by the child-psychology movement in the 1970s?

3) Or something else entirely?

Thanks in advance for your thoughts!

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2009

4 responses to “American Culture and Positive Reinforcement: What’s the Connection?

  1. Hmm.. Well, “positive reinforcement”, as used here, might be an overly general term.

    The “workplace” (peer-group, etc.), and other scenarios (familial, etc.), are perhaps quite different with different cultural underpinnings, etc.

    I guess I take issue with the implied premise that “positive reinforcement” lands upon cultural lines. (Or more accurately upon just one cultural line.)

    And yet, I reckon that the populous island culture, and Confucian aspects of Japan (to paraphrase: “a tool, to be good, must go into the fire..”) play a part in withholding such positive reinforcement. To the said geo/social conditions, I’d post that highly collectivist crowded conditions must necessarily minimize blowing too much sunshine lest “sunshine competition” rear its ugly head and damage the collective efforts. Conversely, I’d think the vastness of the west (physical and otherwise) has historically been able to accommodate such individual spiritual stroking, if you will.

    But what about amaeru and its prevalence in Japan?

    Or how about the “little emperor -syndrome where little boys (and girls, I’d imagine) are indulged with positive reinforcement to remarkable extent?

    And what too of the significance of Catholicism and Protestantism (in the west) and their contrasting approaches to, respectively, celebration and denial? (Or the many other religious underpinnings of the west?)

    On another religious note, I find the west and east versions of the golden rule to be insightful:
    west:DO unto others..
    east: DON’T DO unto others..

    Let’s throw north and south into the equation as well. Perhaps northerners in winter, experience conditions similar to island cultures in the more bound conditions of trying to stay warm.

    In the Japanese classroom, I’ve observed their penchant for equanimity lead to these group-positive and negative reinforcements that are mostly about social engineering and not so much about individual responsibility. (I reckon this can do a disservice to individual mental health, which this westerner recognizes..)

    Also, from an educational perspective, “intrinsic” and “extrinsic”-reward for accomplishment, and the variance, and recognition, and ignorance by the two cultures should be thrown into the dialogical mix.

    To its credit, I think Japanese culture has a perhaps more accurate acceptance of the illusion of the individual self and as such, has the epistemological framework to nurture the bond (tsunagari) we share. (As such, a societal mental health can be encouraged, and group harmony.)

    Anyway, you bring up some very curious questions. I look forward to your inclusion of the respective oligarchies of these two cultures and how they have manipulated the people to behave in such interestingly contrasted ways.


  2. Aloha Tim,

    If Kaizen is a way of improving things, does it mean that talking tough, without explanation, will improve things?

    Does a pat in the back will help anyone go through difficulty?

    Everyone is different, everyone needs his “dial in” to make her or him reach the stars…

    My Humble Opinion


  3. Darren, thanks for commenting. Some folks think out of the box, you just blew the whole thing up, dude. 😮

    Unfortunately don’t have time for a thoughtful response right now as I’m off to Japan for a couple (glorious) weeks. But your “edgy ramblings” inspired some thoughts. I’ll be back!

    Andy, I wasn’t making a value judgment on which approach (positive reinforcement versus “talking tough”) is more effective. Sometimes you need both. An approach that’s effective in Japan isn’t necessarily effective in other cultures. Ditto for the idiosyncrasies of each individual within each culture (that’s a given). And not all Japanese bosses behave the same way anyway–you tend to get either the “Crazy Samurai” or “Wizened Zen Master.

    My real point (that Darren so eloquently expounded on) was that the cultural boundaries of behavior aren’t as clearcut as some might think, and that we may have generational issues to consider as well.

    But more on this after a long plane-ride to Japan. Thanks again for the input. I’ll try and post some pictures while we’re in Nippon Land.

    A hui hou!

  4. Here’s a great analysis by Alaska Steven (over on the sustainability forum):

    Maybe, perhaps, since part of the cultural revolution in America which was so visible during the 1960’s included a rejection of authoritarianism, it is not so much an American emphasis on positive reinforcement as an independent and spirited aversion to being told what to do, think, & believe. Included in this is a rejection of Father Knows Best paternalism, the boss (the Man) telling workers what to do in a make-wrong/beat-up/negative sort of way, a distrust of traditional authority such as priests and the church as arbiters of rules and handlers of money, and so on. The scandals in politics and religion from McCarthy onward taken together with the mobility of American families (so many people move so frequently from place to place that the social framework of community has been largely missing in America for a big portion of the population for many decades) may have resulted in a distrust of authority and lack of responsiveness to anything _but_ “positive reinforcement.” Whether a bonus or an award or praise or better office decor it does seem quite true that, in general, American workers respond better to positive reinforcement than fines, demerits, being chewed out, demoted or relocated to lesser surroundings. Honey makes the worker bees happier whereas exposure to a dose of vinegar and they go look for a different hive in which to labor. So, again, maybe your Japanese client is seeing not so much an American emphasis on positive reinforcement as the default results of a widespread independent and spirited aversion to being told what to do, think, & believe in America.

    Then in a follow up email, Steven added this:

    I’d add that while the 1960’s were a conspiculously visible manifestation of American independent spirit and noncomformity to authoritarian expectations within living memory, this streak in the national character runs deep and has been around at least as long as Patrick Henry, John Adams, Ben Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and the rest of that lot.

    Thanks for your input Steven!

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