Positive Reinforcement and Operant Conditioning

Positive reinforcement can be used to teach new behaviors

positive reinforcement

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In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened.

One of the easiest ways to remember positive reinforcement is to think of it as something being added. By thinking of it in these terms, you may find it easier to identify real-world examples of positive reinforcement.

Sometimes positive reinforcement occurs quite naturally. For example, when you hold the door open for someone you might receive praise and a thank you. That affirmation serves as positive reinforcement and may make it more likely that you will hold the door open for people again in the future.

In other cases, someone might choose to use positive reinforcement very deliberately in order to train and maintain a specific behavior. An animal trainer, for example, might reward a dog with a treat after the animal shakes the trainer's hand and pauses for a count of five

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

There are many examples of positive reinforcement in action. Consider the following examples:

  • After you execute a turn during a skiing lesson, your instructor shouts out, "Great job!"
  • At work, you exceed this month's sales quota, so your boss gives you a bonus.
  • For your psychology class, you watch a video about the human brain and write a paper about what you learned. Your instructor gives you 20 extra credit points for your work.

Can you identify the positive reinforcement in each of these examples?

The ski instructor offering praise, the employer giving a bonus, and the teacher providing bonus points are all positive reinforcers. In each of these situations, the reinforcement is an additional stimulus occurring after the behavior that increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future.

An important thing to note is that positive reinforcement is not always a good thing. For example, when a child misbehaves in a store, some parents might give them extra attention or even buy the child a toy.

Children quickly learn that by acting out, they can gain attention from the parent or even acquire objects that they want. Essentially, parents are reinforcing the misbehavior.

In this case, a better solution would be to use positive reinforcement when the child is displaying good behavior. Instead of rewarding the misbehavior, the parents would want to wait until the child is behaving well and then reward that good behavior with praise, treats, or even a toy.

Different Types of Positive Reinforcers

There are many different types of reinforcers that can be used to increase behaviors, but it is important to note that the type of reinforcer used depends on the individual and the situation.

While gold stars and tokens might be very effective reinforcement for a second-grader, they are not going to have the same effect on a high school or college student.

  • Natural reinforcers: Occur directly as a result of the behavior. For example, a girl studies hard, she pays attention in class, and she does her homework. As a result, she gets excellent grades.
  • Social reinforcers: Involve expressing approval of a behavior, such as a teacher, parent, or employer saying or writing "Good job" or "Excellent work."
  • Tangible reinforcers: Involve presenting actual, physical rewards such as candy, treats, toys, money, and other desired objects. While these types of rewards can be powerfully motivating, they should be used sparingly and with caution.
  • Token reinforcers: Points or tokens that are awarded for performing certain actions. These tokens can then be exchanged for something of value.

When Is Positive Reinforcement Most Effective?

When used correctly, positive reinforcement can be very effective. Positive reinforcement is most effective when it occurs immediately after the behavior. Reinforcement should be presented enthusiastically and should occur frequently.

  • A shorter time between a behavior and positive reinforcement, makes a stronger the connection between the two.
  • If a long period elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be.
  • The longer the time, the more likely it becomes that an intervening behavior might accidentally be reinforced.

In addition to the type of reinforcement used, the presentation schedule can also play a role in the strength of the response. These schedules of reinforcement can have a powerful influence on how strongly a response is and how often it occurs.

A Word From Verywell

Positive reinforcement can be an effective learning tool when used appropriately. Sometimes this type of learning occurs naturally through normal interactions with the environment.

In other cases, people are able to use this behavioral technique to help teach new behaviors. Some important things to consider when using positive reinforcement include the type of reinforcers that will be used and the schedule that will be employed to train the new behavior.

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Article Sources
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  1. Coon, D & Mitterer, JO. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2010.

  2. American Academy of Pediatrics. Positive reinforcement through rewards. Updated November 21, 2015.

  3. Scott HK, Cogburn M. Behavior modification. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing. Updated April 17, 2019.

Additional Reading
  • Coon, D & Mitterer, JO. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2010.
  • Salkind, NJ & Rasmussen, K. Encyclopedia of Educational Psychology, Volume 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications; 2008.