What Is Social Reinforcement?

Three people socializing

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What Is Social Reinforcement?

There are many different types of reinforcement, but when it comes to human beings, one of the most common is the social reinforcement that we encounter all around us.

Social reinforcement is feedback, in the form of actions such as smiles, acceptance, praise, acclaim, and attention, that we receive from other people in response to something we do. Reinforcement can either encourage or discourage us from engaging in a behavior.

According to social reinforcement theory, simply being in the presence of other people can serve as a natural social reinforcement.

How Does Social Reinforcement Work?

In a famous study conducted in 1968, researchers looked at school-age children who spent little time studying. The children were then given praise and attention for their study efforts. The researchers found that children studied up to twice as much when given social reinforcement than they did before when they received no such reinforcement.

In some cases, this attention does not even need to come from an outside source. Self-reinforcement is a concept highly related to social reinforcement that involves giving yourself approval for your own behavior. We often respond to our own behavior with approval or disapproval, judging our actions just as we would those of another individual.

When you do something well, you might praise yourself and feel proud of your accomplishment. If you do poorly, you might engage in self-recrimination or self-blame. In some cases, you might actually reward yourself more overtly when you accomplish a goal that you have set for yourself.

For example, you might buy yourself a new pair of jeans after you reach your target weight or treat yourself to a vacation after you finish a difficult project at work.

4 Types of Reinforcement

There are four different types of reinforcement. They differ in how they encourage or discourage behaviors.

  • Positive reinforcement: This is when something positive—such as praise or a reward of some kind—results from a behavior. Positive reinforcement encourages someone to repeat the desirable behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement: Negative reinforcement is when something negative is avoided or taken away as a result of a certain behavior. For instance, you might put on sunscreen before you go to the beach to avoid getting a sunburn. The negative outcome (getting a sunburn) is removed as a result of the behavior.
  • Extinction: Extinction is when behavior stops because it no longer receives a response. For instance, someone with a specific phobia is triggered by the object of their fear. But if they overcome their fear through therapy and gradual exposure to the object, their behavior (in this case, the fear response) goes away.
  • Punishment: Punishment is a type of reinforcement that makes it less likely a behavior will happen again. For instance, if a child is acting out, a parent might send them to their room.

Social Reinforcement Examples

One of the best ways to understand social reinforcement is to notice examples of it in your everyday life. These examples illustrate how each type of reinforcement might happen in a social setting.

Positive Reinforcement

You'll often see teachers and parents using positive reinforcement with children. For instance, some classrooms have a sticker chart to reward good behavior. Parents might let their child stay up late to watch a movie if they received good grades on a report card.

If you offer to help someone carry their groceries, they might thank you and compliment you on your good manners. This makes you feel good, so in the future, you may seek opportunities to perform the same good deed again.

Negative Reinforcement

An example of negative reinforcement is when a teen, who faces criticism from their friends for not smoking cigarettes, decides to smoke to avoid this response. This example also shows how social reinforcement doesn't always produce healthy behavior.

Reinforcement is contextual, in that the type of behavior being reinforced is relative to the situation. While smoking is a harmful practice, a teen may engage in it because they're influenced by peer pressure.

Extinction

Extinction indicates the absence of a behavior because there is no longer a reinforcement for the behavior. Extinction can also result from a negative experience. For instance, taste aversion is linked to extinction.

In social reinforcement, an example of extinction might happen if people stop complimenting you on your fashion choices. Where those compliments might have once reinforced your behavior and inspired you to spend more time putting together outfits, you might stop putting in the same effort as compliments dwindle and fade.

Research shows, however, that just because a behavior is gone doesn't mean it's lost forever. You can regain conditioned behavior over time by re-establishing the reinforcement—or, in this case, by someone noticing your fashion choices and regaining a positive association.

Punishment

There are two types of punishment reinforcement: positive and negative. Positive punishment means actively penalizing someone. For instance, a child who misbehaves during class might get sent to the principal's office. This is a positive punishment.

A negative punishment, on the other hand, is when something is taken away as a means to punish undesirable behavior and reinforce desired behavior. In the case of a child who misbehaves during class, a negative punishment would be that they aren't allowed to go on the class field trip—the privilege is taken away.

Is Social Reinforcement Effective?

Whether or not social reinforcement is effective depends on a number of factors, including who is doing the reinforcing, who is receiving the reinforcement, and what the circumstances are.

For instance, a parent might try to use positive reinforcement by saying they will take their child to the playground if they finish all of their homework. However, if the child doesn't really enjoy going to the playground, they will be less likely to engage in the desired behavior.

Research has found that positive and negative reinforcement together may be more effective than either type of reinforcement by itself.

Punishment can be an effective method of reinforcement, but there are many variables that affect whether it actually works. Research has found that with parenting, for example, children who were acting defiantly or hitting showed improvements in their behavior over time when parents reasoned with them (explained why hitting is bad) and only moderately used timeouts as a form of punishment.

When parents explained to their children that the consequence of behaving poorly is a timeout, timeouts became a more effective form of punishment as well.

For adults who commit crimes, the most effective form of punishment is actually not a prison sentence, the U.S. Department of Justice finds. In general, people are much more deterred by the idea that they will definitely be caught committing a crime than they are by the severity or duration of the punishment.

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