What is negative reinforcement?

The answer to this question might surprise quite a few people. In behavioral psychology, negative reinforcement is not punishing someone with disciplinary action for misdeeds, like a parent spanking their child for throwing a tantrum. In fact, this situation is actually positive punishment.

When discussing reinforcement in terms of behavioral psychology, it’s important to remember that “positive” and “negative” don’t necessarily mean “good” or “bad.” Instead, “positive” simply means that giving something while “negative” means taking something away. “Reinforcement” in this context simply means to increase the odds of a certain behavior occurring again in the future. “Punishment” is the opposite concept of reinforcement. According to this theory—first proposed by B.F. Skinner  —“punishment” is designed to decrease the odds of a certain event or behavior from happening again.

Negative reinforcement is therefore the absence of something. More specifically, it is someone taking something away in response to a certain situation or event (unwanted/aversive stimulus). Removing this something (typically the unwanted stimulus itself) reinforces the behavioral response to this unwanted stimulus. In other words, the act of removing or avoiding unwanted behaviors and events increases the odds that a specific response will happen again.

What is an example of negative reinforcement?

So, what does negative reinforcement actually look like when applied to real-life situations?

Example #1

Being upset by a dirty car → Cleaning the car → No more dirty car

In this situation, the dirty car is the upsetting stimulus that triggers the response of cleaning the car. The result? A clean car.

Since this response removes the upsetting stimulus, it is considered negative. The outcome being desirable (not having a dirty car) increases the odds that the response (cleaning the car) to the upsetting stimulus (dirty car) will be repeated in the future. In short, this rewarding outcome reinforces the behavior of cleaning cars.

Example #2

Let’s try another example.

Dad tries to give his child broccoli → Son throws a tantrum → Dad takes the broccoli away

In this situation, a dad tries to get his son to eat broccoli. The son hates broccoli and throws a tantrum when it’s on his dinner plate. The dad doesn’t want to put up with the tantrum anymore, so he removes the broccoli from his son’s plate.

Because the son’s response (tantrum) to the aversive stimulus (given broccoli) achieved desired results (removal of broccoli), the son is more likely to throw a tantrum in the future in a similar situation. In other words, the dad taking his son’s broccoli away is negatively reinforcing to his son the idea that throwing a tantrum is an effective way to deal with an unpleasant situation.

Example #3

For contrast, let’s look at an example of positive reinforcement.

Daughter has an upcoming test → Daughter studies and aces the test → Mom buys daughter a new movie

In this situation, the stimulus is the upcoming test. The daughter’s response (studying) to the stimulus produces a desirable outcome (getting a good grade). Since the mom wants her daughter to do well in school, she is giving (positive) her child a new movie to increase the odds (reinforcement) that her daughter studies more often and therefore performs better in school.

Is negative reinforcement effective?

The answer to this question is a little more tricky than a simple “yes” or “no.” Why? Because most people respond well to a mix of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Sometimes adding an occasional negative or positive punishment is effective as well, although certain positive punishments, like spanking, do more harm than good.

The bottom line: Does it work?

Research suggests that yes, negative reinforcement does work. However, it is most effective in achieving desired results when paired with positive reinforcement, too.

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