Imagine you’re in elementary school again, playing the “warmer/colder” game – you know, the one where a friend chooses an item in the room and tells you “warmer” when you’re getting close, and “colder” when you are going the wrong way.
Now, imagine every time you get “warmer”, your friend gives you an M&M. It’s not a huge reward, but it’s motivating, tasty, and the game is fun in and of itself. You are more and more excited to try new directions and find your goal, and you never get frustrated even if it takes a while, because you’re having a good time and getting reinforced. When you finally get to the spot, your friend cheers and shares his bag of M&M’s with you. You both agree – we need to play this game more often!
Conversely, imagine that instead of a treat when you’re “warmer”, you get a small electric shock on your neck. It’s not hugely painful, but it stings and is not pleasant. Every time you move in the wrong direction, you get stung. Since you don’t know where you’re going, a lot of trial and error results in a lot of stings. You are tempted to just stand in one place and not move, but that’s not “warmer” either, and you will get stung. You work hard, but hesitant, knowing you must keep moving but that every move may be the wrong one. When you finally reach your goal, your friend whoops in excitement and gives you a high five. You are so relieved to be safe that your friend says, “See? He works for praise. He doesn’t need treats. Look how happy he is.”
And he starts the game again.