How Negative Reinforcement Works

Negative reinforcement strengthens a response or behavior by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus. B. F. Skinner first described the term in his theory of operant conditioning.

Rather than delivering an aversive stimulus (punishment) or a reward (positive reinforcement), negative reinforcement works by taking away something that the individual finds undesirable. This removal reinforces the behavior that proceeds it, making it more likely that the response will occur again in the future.

This article discusses how negative reinforcement works, how it compares to other behavioral learning methods, and how effective it can be in the learning process.

Negative reinforcement
Verywell / Jessica Olah

How Does Negative Reinforcment Work?

Negative reinforcement works to strengthen certain behaviors by removing some type of aversive outcome. As a form of reinforcement, it strengthens the behavior that precedes it. In the case of negative reinforcement, it is the action of removing the undesirable outcome or stimulus that serves as the reward for performing the behavior. 

Aversive stimuli tend to involve some type of discomfort, either physical or psychological. Behaviors are negatively reinforced when they allow you to escape from aversive stimuli that are already present or allow you to completely avoid the aversive stimuli before they happen.

Deciding to take an antacid before you indulge in a spicy meal is an example of negative reinforcement. You engage in an action in order to avoid a negative result.

One of the best ways to remember negative reinforcement is to think of it as something being subtracted from the situation.

There are two different types of negative reinforcement: example and avoidance learning. Escape learning involves being able to escape an undesirable stimulus, while avoidance learning involves being able to prevent experiencing the aversive stimulus altogether.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

Looking at some real-world examples can be a great way to get a better idea about what negative reinforcement is and how it works. Consider the following situations:

  • Before heading out for a day at the beach, you slather on sunscreen (the behavior) to avoid getting sunburned (removal of the aversive stimulus).
  • You decide to clean up your mess in the kitchen (the behavior) to avoid getting into a fight with your roommate (removal of the aversive stimulus).
  • On Monday morning, you leave the house early (the behavior) to avoid getting stuck in traffic and being late for work (removal of an aversive stimulus).
  • At dinner time, a child pouts and refuses to eat her vegetables for dinner. Her parents quickly take the offending veggies away. Since the behavior (pouting) led to the removal of the aversive stimulus (the veggies), this is an example of negative reinforcement.

Can you identify the negative reinforcer in each of these examples? Sunburn, a fight with your roommate, being late for work, and having to eat vegetables are all negative outcomes that were avoided by performing a specific behavior. By eliminating these undesirable outcomes, preventive behaviors become more likely to occur again in the future.

Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a type of reinforcement that involves giving someone the desired reward in response to a behavior. This might involve offering praise, money, or other incentives.

Both positive and negative reinforcement work to increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again in the future. You can distinguish between the two by noticing whether something is being taken away or added to the situation. If something desirable is being added, then it is positive reinforcement. If something aversive is being taken away, then it is negative reinforcement.

Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

One mistake that people often make is confusing negative reinforcement with punishment. Remember, however, that negative reinforcement involves the removal of a negative condition to strengthen a behavior.

Punishment involves either presenting or taking away a stimulus to weaken a behavior.

Consider the following example and determine whether you think it is an example of negative reinforcement or punishment:

Luke is supposed to clean his room every Saturday morning. Last weekend, he went out to play with his friend without cleaning his room. As a result, his father made him spend the rest of the weekend doing other chores like cleaning out the garage, mowing the lawn, and weeding the garden, in addition to cleaning his room.

If you said that this was an example of punishment, then you are correct. Because Luke didn't clean his room, his father punished him by making him do extra chores.

If you are trying to distinguish between negative reinforcement or punishment, consider whether something is being added or taken away from a situation.

If an unwanted outcome is being added or applied as a consequence of a behavior, then it is an example of punishment. If something is being removed in order to avoid or relieve an unwanted outcome, then it is an example of negative reinforcement. 

Uses for Negative Reinforcement


Negative reinforcement can be utilized in a variety of ways in many different settings. A few examples include:

Parenting

Parents can use negative reinforcement to encourage positive behaviors in various ways. For example, a parent might eliminate a chore that their child is supposed to do if they finish all of the other tasks on their list. Another example is giving children more time to play on their tablets if they finish all of their homework first.

Education

One example of negative reinforcement in the classroom is canceling a task that students dislike (such as a pop quiz) if they complete all their assigned work on time.

Psychotherapy

Negative reinforcement is often utilized as a part of addiction treatment and behavioral therapy. People who have been convicted of drug-related offenses, for example, might be able to have their sentences reduced if they participate in drug and alcohol treatment.

In behavioral therapy, negative reinforcement can help strengthen positive behaviors. As people develop skills, they may find that practicing new coping skills eliminates unpleasant outcomes, which can help further reinforce new behaviors.

Effectiveness

Negative reinforcement can be an effective way to strengthen the desired behavior. However, it is most effective when reinforcers are presented immediately following a behavior. When a long period elapses between the behavior and the reinforcer, the response is likely to be weaker.

In some cases, behaviors that occur in the intervening time between the initial action and the reinforcer are may also be inadvertently strengthened as well.

Some experts believe that negative reinforcement should be used sparingly in classroom settings, while positive reinforcement should be emphasized.

While negative reinforcement can produce immediate results, it may be best suited for short-term use.

Benefits of Negative Reinforcement


While the name of this type of reinforcement often leads people to think that it is a "negative" type of reinforcement, negative reinforcement can have several benefits that can make it a valuable tool in the learning process. Potential advantages include:

  • It can increase desirable behaviors: Because it involves the removal of an undesirable stimulus, it can help strengthen more positive behaviors.
  • It can lead to lasting changes: When applied correctly, negative reinforcement can contribute to long-lasting changes in behavior.
  • It can work quickly: The removal of an aversive stimulus can lead to relatively quick behavior change.

Potential Pitfalls of Negative Reinforcement

While negative reinforcement can be a helpful learning tool, it can have some potential downsides. 

  • It can be misinterpreted: When a negative stimulus is removed, usually without explanation, it can sometimes lead to problems with communication. It can potentially create misunderstandings in relationships where people misread the other person's intentions.
  • Poor timing can render it ineffective: If the delivery of negative reinforcement is not timed correctly, it can be less effective. A large gap between the behavior and the removal of an aversive stimulus means that people will be less likely to form a connection between the action and the consequences of the action.

A Word From Verywell

Negative reinforcement can have a powerful effect on behavior, but it tends to be most useful when used as a short-term solution. The type of reinforcement used is important, but how quickly and how often the reinforcement is given also plays a major role in the strength of the response. The schedule of reinforcement that is used can have an important impact not only how quickly a behavior is learned, but also on the strength of the response.

6 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Skinner BF. Operant behavior. American Psychologist, 1963;18(8): 503–515. doi:10.1037/h0045185

  2. American Psychological Association. Negative reinforcement.

  3. American Psychological Association. Aversive stimulus.

  4. American Psychological Association. Positive reinforcement.

  5. Sprouls K, Mathur SR, Upreti G. Is positive feedback a forgotten classroom practice? Findings and implications for at-risk students. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth. 2015;59(3), 153-160. doi:10.1080/1045988X.2013.876958

  6. Segers E, Beckers T, Geurts H, Claes L, Danckaerts M, van der Oord S. Working memory and reinforcement schedule jointly determine reinforcement learning in children: Potential implications for behavioral parent training. Front Psychol. 2018;9:394. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00394

Additional Reading
  • Coon, D & Mitterer, JO. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2010.

  • Domjan, MP. The Principles of Learning and Behavior: Active Learning Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2010.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.