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  • Emily

That Time Positive Reinforcement Saved My Car

Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour.

For example, giving a rat a treat after it completes a task, being giving a bonus for doing good work, or simply being told ‘well done’ can strengthen the particular behaviour.

Commonly associated with training animals in laboratory conditions, positive reinforcement occurs daily, through simple good actions and words.



The first time I took a long train journey on my own, my mum bought be a bracelet. Nothing fancy, but it’s a reminder to me that I can do more than I think. But my anxiety is always lingering, even in general day-to-day situations; making phone calls, doctors’ appointments or unexplored drives. So for these, I find myself turning to the tried and tested theory above.

The rewards associated with positive reinforcement are subjective, as people and their struggles are, so what works for me might not for others.

In my case, I am easily pleased. Cups of tea, cakes, new socks, binge-watching a TV show, are all positive stimuli. They give me something to look forward to whilst completing the task, but over time an association builds between the behaviour and the feeling of being praised for accomplishing it.

It’s important to note that the reward does not come with the anxiety, it comes afterwards, when the anxiety has been overcome.



Now, rewards like these, known as tangible reinforcers (physical rewards) come from me, but other people in my life also contribute to this without really knowing.

Social reinforcers are the verbal approval of behaviour. When a teacher praises your work in school or telling your dog he’s such a good boy. For the most part, people don’t think twice about offering praise for good behaviour, but it can have more of an impact than you might think.

For example, just the other day, my car wouldn’t start. I mean really? A few days of cold weather and my car reacts like a mechanical version of a Vivian Leigh character.

I was home alone after a week in Ireland, I was tired, it was late in the day and I had a list of things I wanted to get done.

I like lists. When I have lots to do it stresses me out and when I make a list, I like to complete it. When I can’t, when things build up, I get easily overwhelmed and panic. This was one such occasion, and I needed some damn food in the house.

I was ready to walk moodily through the heavy rain like a Bronte heroine determined to get milk, because I, over my little life, have grown to really hate asking for help. I hate feeling like I’ve failed at something and I hate feeling weak.

In this instance however, self-preservation kicked in. I needed my car to work so I could go shopping and look after myself, instead of wandering around like Mrs Havisham (yes, yes I know Mrs Havisham is Dickens, not Bronte, I just really like a literary reference).

So, I pulled myself together and asked my neighbour for help, he very kindly jump-started my car and even charged my battery for me the following day.



Now from the outside, this seems logical. Car not working, get it fixed. Who cries over a faulty car? Me. I do. And in truth, I didn’t think much of it until my mum text me and told me that she and my dad were proud of me for pulling myself together and using my head.

My mum in all her goodness, does this a lot. Whether or not she knows she’s doing it, I’m not sure. When I do something she knows stresses me out, she’s always there to tell me I did good, that I was strong or brave or clever.

It seems rather childish put down like this, and maybe it is. But then again, who doesn’t like being told they did good? The things we do to get ourselves through our daily problems may, to other people seem silly, childish or weird. Yet, if those things are what keep you going and happy, then who cares?

Sometimes, we all need to be told that we’re more powerful than we think. And if you’ve got nobody to tell you that, then I will. I think you’re brilliant.



  • First and very, very important: It is always good to ask for help. My own backwards way of thinking aside, asking for help is never bad, never weak, or burdening or anything you tell yourself it is. If you want or need help, ask.

  • Know thy neighbour, biblical, thank you. If I hadn’t been on good terms with my neighbour, I’m not sure what I would have done. Even if you don’t get muddled like I do, being friendly with the people next door or across the road can’t hurt. Your alarm goes off, you need someone to feed your cat or jumpstart your car – a card at Christmas can go a long way.

  • Most people really do know what you’re going through. In this instance, a dead car. I was scared to go and ask in case he thought I was a bad car mother, but he didn’t. Because everyone’s car breaks down from time to time and everyone gets annoyed by it. On some level, people know what it’s like to struggle with something and want to help. ​

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