Positive and Negative Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

How Reinforcement Is Used in Psychology

Child recieving a reinforcement
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One of the many different ways in which people can learn is through a process known as operant conditioning. This involves learning through reinforcement or punishment. The type of reinforcement used can play an important role in how quickly a behavior is learned and the overall strength of the resulting response.

Understanding Reinforcement in Psychology

Reinforcement is a term used in  operant conditioning to refer to anything that increases the likelihood that a response will occur. Note that reinforcement is defined by the effect that it has on behavior—it increases or strengthens the response.

For example, reinforcement might involve presenting praise (the reinforcer) immediately after a child puts away her toys (the response). By reinforcing the desired behavior with praise, the child will be more likely to perform the same actions again in the future.

Reinforcement can include anything that strengthens or increases a behavior, including specific tangible rewards, events, and situations. In a classroom setting, for example, types of reinforcement might include praise, getting out of unwanted work, token rewards, candy, extra playtime, and fun activities.

Primary and Secondary Reinforcement

There are two major categories of reinforcement:

  • Primary reinforcement: Primary reinforcement is sometimes referred to as unconditional reinforcement. It occurs naturally and doesn't require learning in order to work. Primary reinforcers often have an evolutionary basis in that they aid in the survival of the species. Examples of primary reinforcers include food, air, sleep, water, and sex. Genetics and experience may also play a role in how reinforcing such things works. For example, while one person might find a certain type of food very rewarding, another person may not like that food at all.
  • Secondary reinforcement: Secondary reinforcement, also known as conditioned reinforcement, involves stimuli that have become rewarding by being paired with another reinforcing stimulus. For example, when training a dog, praise and treats might be used as primary reinforcers. The sound of a clicker can be associated with the praise and treats until the sound of the clicker itself begins to work as a secondary reinforcer.

Types of Reinforcement

In operant conditioning, there are two different types of reinforcement. Both of these forms of reinforcement influence behavior, but they do so in different ways. The two types include:

  1. Positive reinforcement involves adding something to increase a response, such as giving a bit of candy to a child after she cleans up her room.
  2. Negative reinforcement involves removing something in order to increase a response, such as canceling a quiz if students turn in all of their homework for the week. By removing the aversive stimulus (the quiz), the teacher hopes to increase the desired behavior (completing all homework).

While these terms involve the words positive and negative, it's important to note that Skinner did not utilize these to mean "good" or "bad." Instead, think of what these terms would mean when used mathematically. Positive is the equivalent of a plus sign, meaning something is added to or applied to the situation. Negative is the equivalent of a minus sign, meaning something is removed or subtracted from the situation.

Examples of Reinforcement in the Real World

Here are a few real-world examples of how reinforcement can be utilized to change a behavior:

  • During practice for your office softball team, the coach yells out, "Great job!" after you throw a pitch. Because of this, you're more likely to pitch the ball the same way again. This is an example of positive reinforcement.
  • At work, you exceed your manager's sales quota for the month and so you receive a bonus as part of your paycheck. This makes it more likely that you will try to exceed the minimum sales quota again next month. This is another example of positive reinforcement.
  • You go to your doctor to get your yearly flu shot in order to avoid coming down with the flu. In this case, you are engaging in a behavior (getting a shot) to avoid an aversive stimulus (getting sick). This is an example of negative reinforcement.
  • You slather some aloe vera gel on a sunburn to prevent the burn from hurting. Applying the gel on the burn prevents an aversive outcome (pain), so this is an example of negative reinforcement. Because engaging in the behavior minimizes an aversive outcome, you will be more likely to use aloe vera gel again in the future. This is another example of negative reinforcement.
  • You take acetaminophen to get rid of a terrible headache. After about 15 or 20 minutes, the pain in your head finally recedes. Because taking the pills allowed you to eliminate an aversive situation, it makes it more likely that you will take the pain pills again in the future to deal with physical pain. This is another example of negative reinforcement.

Factors That Influence the Strength of the Response

How and when reinforcement is delivered can affect the overall strength of a response. This strength is measured by the persistence, frequency, duration, and accuracy of the response after reinforcement is halted.

Continuous Reinforcement

In situations when present reinforcement is controlled, such as during training, the timing of when a reinforcer is presented can be manipulated. During the early stages of learning, continuous reinforcement is often used, such as when you first teach your dog a new trick. This schedule involves reinforcing a response each and every time it occurs.

Partial Reinforcement

Once a behavior has been acquired, it's often a good idea to switch to a partial reinforcement schedule. The four main types of partial reinforcement are:

  • Fixed-ratio schedules: Reinforcing a behavior after a specific number of responses have occurred.
  • Fixed-interval schedules: Reinforcing a behavior after a specific period of time has elapsed.
  • Variable-ratio schedules: Reinforcing the behavior after an unpredictable number of responses.
  • Variable-interval schedules: Reinforcing the behavior after an unpredictable period of time has elapsed.

A Word From Verywell

Reinforcement plays a vital role in the operant conditioning process. When used appropriately, reinforcement can be an effective learning tool that to encourage desirable behaviors and discourage undesirable ones.

It's important to remember that what constitutes reinforcement can vary from one person to another. In a classroom setting, for example, one child may find a treat reinforcing while another might be indifferent to such a reward. In some instances, what is reinforcing might actually come as a surprise. If a child only receives attention from his parents when he is being scolded, that attention can actually reinforce misbehavior.

By learning more about how reinforcement works, you can gain a better understanding of how different types of reinforcement contribute to learning and behavior.

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