What makes a reinforcer or punisher more salient for you?

Written for Washington State University, Psychology Department, PSYCH-328, Dr. Daffin.

Being given rewards or penalties are a fact of life and something we became accustomed to since childhood. What makes a reinforcer or punisher more salient for you? 

Pertaining to the question, the use of the word “childhood” in suffixing the context, but prefixing the question assuredly biased the following answer toward considering a psychological account of how this “accustomization” may or may not have occurred. This demonstrates remarkable utility in order of linguistic conception, in influencing nascent antecedent insight.

Concerning personal salience in reinforcers and punishers, a bridge to more deeply trained concepts was necessary. Salience combined with reinforcers and punishers, in effect, seem like amplifiers and filters in electronics. Please bear with me, the following logic is nested deeply, and requires care in unpacking due to forty-five years of selective conditioning. It is best summarized now, in the context of a combination of generativity (Erikson, 1950, pp. 266-268) and flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014, pp. 239-240), for sensory pleasures and pains, and cognitive goals and rewards seemed hardly effective in overcoming illness. This seems at face-value, stubborn, and immovable, however it is grounded in firm faith, conviction in ecological benefit, and now generativity in sharing results of efforts combined with scientific engagement; all of which are very reinforcing and may be autotelic or autistic in behavior.

For myself, the most effective amplifier for reinforcement, is increasing ability in restoring flow benefitting an ecology—decreasing personal, group, and social resource extraction, energy generation, and consumption. The most effective filter through punishment is the extinction of ability in restoring flow harming an ecology, leading to greater anxiety and boredom inductivity (incubating neurosis etc.) within said ecology—increasing personal, group, and social resource extraction, energy generation, and consumption. Salience, in these cases, is therefore related to a diverse skill not in production, but skills in just-in-time homeostasis arrival (i.e., “applied tranquility”) within heterodynamic environments (i.e., chaotic, imbalanced, asymmetric, disproportionate, unstable, stratified, and inequal).


Looking up the etymology of “salient”, clarified the awareness of a seeking to establish homeostasis. The word “salient” reveals relations to “leaping” and “skipping”, and deep Sanskrit roots meaning “to flow, run, hurry” (Harper, 2021a). These Sanskrit roots are curiously congruent with the etymology of samsara, where the Sanskrit “smsr-“ means “to flow, as one/together with” (Harper, 2021b). The reason this is brought up is because for me, the strongest reinforcers and punishers changed forms rapidly during childhood out of strong curiosity in what pain and pleasure really truly is.

Effective conditioning became less related to carrot and stick, goal and reward, leading to a realm of boredom and anxiety, then diminished and favored something close to generativity (of ecology rather than just human). Later in childhood, the most salient reinforcer personally, had been flow, and the most salient punisher is that which moved one away from flow state characteristics (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014a, pp 240-242). I literally felt punished when conditions increased demand for verbal intimations of self-concept, dropping out of flow state (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014b, pp. 214-216; Csikszentmihalyi, 2014a, pp. 242-244). I felt rewarded when conditions decreased demands for self-concept. Over the past seven years, it became apparent that reinforcement is square in the realm of “contrasting traits conducive to optimal development later in life” (Csikszentmihalyi, 2014c, p. 43).

Historical Support for Personal Salient Reinforcers/Punishers

The reason for the lack of salience in “carrot and stick” is most likely connected to a traumatic dysfunctional home environment administering these methods extensively, arbitrarily, and with great frequency, intensity, and duration followed by remarkable periods of neglect. The reason for lack of salient effects of goal and outcome is most likely due to a prejudiced school environment delivering on continuous stigma and courtesy stigma (Bridley & Daffin, 2021, p. 1.22), inclusive of school staff. This fails to mention another compounding problem, that being a contradictory nature of a “supposedly” overt white, blonde haired, and blue eyed Caucasian, yet genetically native Mexican, Native American, and European. I did not fit traditional narratives. The strongest motivational components of flow therefore seemed to run ahead under possible dissociation (my father was diagnosed with DID, it runs in the family). Personally, reinforcers and punishers are more in line with Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow state dynamic, where anxiety and boredom outside of a narrow band of challenge over skill are punishing, and within are reinforcing (see “optimal experience” [Csikszentmihalyi, 2014b, pp. 210-214]).

While one could reasonably ascertain the presence of goals, covert awareness reveals a distinct lack of cognitive formations related to thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in goals cognized. That’s not to say that thoughts are absent—usually flashes of superpositioned abstract representations of insight amidst great spans of calm (it’s like sparks of lightning with no dramatic boom). Without new and novel insight generation, thoughts are pretty much suspended amongst a backdrop of relative tranquility to low-grade anxiety due to public self-awareness (Buss, 1980; Froming, Walker, & Lopyan, 1981). The goal/reward behavior has itself sublimated to ecological generativity through meditative application, as it has been realized some time ago that salience for human-centric goals are essentially biased and species-serving rather than inclusive of the continuance of a diversity of life assuring rich evolutionary continuity. It shall be stated that low-grade anxiety is extinguishing as a result of psychoeducation and continued meditative practices, though some anxiety is predicted to be necessary and perhaps evolutionarily useful.


In summary, this was a very valuable exercise in considering the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences of reinforcers and punishers which lead to an evolution of these very thoughts, words, and behaviors. Meditation, therapy, and psychoeducation has certainly helped shape (no pun intended) behaviors beyond mere schizoid personality type defensive behaviors of intellectualization, and capacities of creativities (McWilliams, 2011, p. 200; this writeup is offered as “exhibit a”) and allowed more introspection within which greater ability to reach homeostasis rather than safety, is able to be accomplished with skill in challenges, regardless of situation. Considering flow state, meditation provides a proper context for continued conditioning.

Meditative phenomena serves reinforce[ment] and punish[ment]. This develops an ability to de-manifest anxiety and boredom, rather than plastering over these with “making” mentality (i.e., safety, survival, and opportunity). The de-manifesting ability reduces dysfunction, allows growth, recognizes significance, welcomes diversity, embraces the dialectic, superpositions complexity with simplicity, and reduces entropy by finding joy, compassion, love, and tranquility—four friends. This seems challenging to exponential growth at an altar of economic measures. Ultimately, it had been realized that a punisher is exactly a reinforcer; to which is a matter of spatial perspective and temporal framing. A reinforcer of economic growth behavior today is a punisher of climate emergency behaviors tomorrow. I do think behaviorists were, and still are, onto something, and so are the great majority of peers, many of whom are here today—hello [Roger’s Unconditional Positive Regard] reader—such is equality. And this is exactly reinforcing. Beyond external, beyond internal, beyond both, beyond neither—utterly beyond samsara, to that which is beyond the dimension of salience and the absence of it: nirvana.

Go beyond; future studies in this area are recommended, and forthcoming.

What factors, in general, make reinforcers and punishers more effective? 

First, considering the aforementioned, reducing the temporal gap between behavior, and reinforcers and punishers is critical; this is immediacy (Daffin, 2021, p. 6.9).

Second, increasing the contrast between environment, and reinforcers and punishers is important; this is contingency (Daffin, 2021, p. 6.9).

Third, the amplitude or volume between covert evaluations and overt reinforcers and punishers are also important; this is magnitude (Daffin, 2021, p. 6.9).

Fourth, a combination of events occurring around a punisher and reinforcer assist; these are motivating operations, establishing, and abolishing (Daffin, 2021, p.6.10).

Fifth, individual differences may play into the four preceding factors of efficacy in reinforcers and punishers (Daffin, 2021, p. 6.10).

It would seem that these are at play in the evaluation to the answer to the prior question; neat!


Bridley, A., Daffin, L. W. (2021). Abnormal Psychology2nd Edition. Pullman, WA: Washington State University.

Buss, A. H. (1980). Self-consciousness and social anxiety. Freeman.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., (2014). The concept of flow. In M. Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pp. 239-263. Springer. DOI 10.1007/978-94-017-9088-8

Csikszentmihalyi, M., (2014). Toward a psychology of optimal experience. In M. Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Flow and the foundations of positive psychology: The collected works of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, pp. 209-226. Springer. DOI 10.1007/978-94-017-9088-8

Csikszentmihalyi, M., Rathunde, K. (2014). The development of the person: An experiential perspective on the ontogenesis of psychological complexity. In M. Csikszentmihalyi (Ed.), Applications of Flow in Human Development and Education pp. 7-79. Springer. DOI 10.1007/978-94-017-9094-9

Erikson, E. H. (1993). Childhood and society. WW Norton & Company.

Froming, W. J., Walker, G. R., & Lopyan, K. J. (1982). Public and private self-awareness: When personal attitudes conflict with societal expectations. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 18(5), 476–487. https://doi.org/10.1016/0022-1031(82)90067-1

Harper, D. (2021). Samsara. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/samsara

Harper, D. (2021). Salient. Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved September 29, 2021, from https://www.etymonline.com/word/salient (Links to an external site.)

McWilliams, N. (2011). Psychoanalytics Diagnosis: Understanding personality structure in the clinical process, Second Edition. Guilford.