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 learn is through a process called operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning. Reinforcement in operant conditioning involves strengthening an action by associating it with a consequence.

If you want a child to clean their room, for instance, you may reinforce this behavior by giving them an allowance every time that they do. By getting the same consequence (money) each time they perform the action (cleaning the room), they begin to learn this behavior.

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 operant conditioning, "reinforcement" refers to anything that increases the likelihood that a response will occur. Psychologist B.F. Skinner coined the term in 1937,

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

Reinforcement can include anything that strengthens or increases a behavior. In a classroom setting, for example, types of reinforcement might include giving praise, letting students out of unwanted work, or providing token rewards, candy, extra playtime, or fun activities.

Primary and Secondary Reinforcement

Reinforcements can be either primary or secondary.

Primary Reinforcement

Primary reinforcement, which is sometimes referred to as unconditional reinforcement, occurs naturally. Primary reinforcers often have an evolutionary basis in that they aid in the survival of the species. As such, they don't require learning in order to work.

Examples of primary reinforcers include:

Genetics may also play a role in primary reinforcement. For example, research suggests that people may pick their mates, in part, due to specific genetic traits that they deem to be more preferable.

Secondary Reinforcement

Secondary reinforcement involves stimuli that have become rewarding by being paired with another reinforcing stimulus. This is also known as conditioned reinforcement.

For example, when training a dog, praise and treats might be used as primary reinforcers. The sound of a clicker can be added with the praise and treats as a secondary reinforcer. Eventually, the sound of the clicker alone begins to work as a reinforcer.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

In operant conditioning, there are two different types of reinforcement (beyond primary and secondary reinforcements). Both influence behavior but in different ways. The two types are:

  • Positive reinforcement: This involves adding something to increase response, such as giving a piece of candy to a child after they clean their room.
  • Negative reinforcement: This involves removing something to increase 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.

Real-World Examples of Reinforcement

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

Positive Reinforcement

During practice for your office softball team, the coach yells, "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.

Another example is while at work, you exceed your manager's sales quota for the month, 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.

Negative Reinforcement

You go to your doctor and get your yearly flu shot 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.

Another example is if you slather aloe vera gel on a sunburn to prevent the burn from hurting. Applying the gel prevents an aversive outcome (pain), so this is an example of negative reinforcement. Because engaging in the behavior minimizes an aversive outcome, you will also be more likely to use aloe vera gel again in the future.

Reinforcement and Response Strength

How and when reinforcement is delivered can affect the overall strength of a response. The following qualities can measure and describe response strength:

  • Accuracy: Did the reinforcement deliver the desired response?
  • Duration: How long did the response continue?
  • Frequency: How often did the response occur?
  • Persistence: Did the response occur each and every time?

Reinforcement Schedules

The timing of when a reinforcer is presented can be manipulated. During the early stages of learning, continuous reinforcement is often used. This involves reinforcing a response each and every time it occurs, such as giving a puppy a treat every time it pees outside.

Once a behavior has been acquired, a partial reinforcement schedule can be used. The four main types of partial reinforcement include:

A Word From Verywell

Reinforcement plays a vital role in the operant conditioning process. When used appropriately, this can be an effective learning tool 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. And if a child only receives attention from their parents when being scolded, that attention can actually reinforce the 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.

8 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.
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Additional Reading

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