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The Effects of Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Updated on October 1, 2012

The concept of instrumental conditioning was first conceived by Robert Thorndike. Instrumental conditioning is where “the learned responses, which operate on the environment, are instrumental in either attaining some subsequent desirable reward or avoid escaping some subsequent aversive or punishing event” (Gould, 2008). For example, if a gorilla is placed in a cage with a stick but its food or reward is outside of the cage, the gorilla may attempt to get the food or reward in many different ways. Through trial and error, the gorilla figures out that the stick can be used to pull the food or reward within reaching distance. The responses can be both positive and negative. “The greater the satisfaction or discomfort, the greater the strengthening or weakening of the bond” (Thorndike, 1911, p. 244). I am going to examine and discuss both positive and negative reinforcement as well as reward and punishment of a selected learning situation, which is learning to ride a bike, while explaining which form of instrumental conditioning was most effective for me when I learned to ride a bike.

My chosen learning situation is when a child learns how to ride a bike. For many children it may be very difficult. It could take many different attempts before they grasp an understanding of the process of riding a bike. Others might comprehend the functions of a bicycle much easier or faster. The bike riding process consists of several different functions. A child must be able to balance the bicycle while both peddling and steering the bike. Also, another factor in bike riding is movement. Not only is a child trying to peddle and steer simultaneously but they are also moving forward and sometimes at a fast pace. No matter how quickly a child learns to ride a bike, the learning experience is basically the process of trial and error. Children continuously attempt to ride a bike until they are finally able to stay on the bike without falling off or wrecking. In my personal experience, I recall wanting so badly to learn how to ride a bike and was very excited to have my training wheels taken off. I wanted to be able to ride with the bigger kids in my neighborhood. My father decided he would be the person to teach me to ride my bicycle without the training wheels. He took me into the front yard and put me on a bike and explained to me that I should not get discouraged if I wreck because that is part of the learning process. He began the riding lesson by pushing me around while holding the bike so I would not wreck. Once I was comfortable, he began taking his hands off occasionally to let me ride on my own. Finally, he decided that I was ready for the push and release method. My father reminded me that I would need to keep peddling while maintaining my balance. Of course, the first time he pushed and released me I wrecked. It took several times before I was going all the way across the front yard before crashing into the ground. Each time after, I went a little further until I was riding all by myself.

According to Terry (2006), positive reinforcement is “defined by the presence of a response-to-reinforcer contingency [which] relates performance of an instrumental behavior to a particular outcome, the positive reinforcer” (p.21-22). In the case of learning to ride a bicycle, my father used positive reinforcement by staying positive and not becoming frustrated with me when I would wreck. He would try to provide me with direction and encourage me to get back on the bicycle and try again. This kept me from becoming discouraged and frustrated and gave me confidence that I would learn to ride a bicycle. “Negative reinforcement strengthens a behavior because a negative condition is stopped or avoided as a consequence of the behavior” (Levine, 1999). When learning to ride a bike, there was also negative reinforcement. In order to avoid wrecking, I would have to continue peddling and maintaining my balance while steering. With each time I made it a little further without wrecking, my behavior was strengthened by the consequence of avoiding crashing my bike or hurting myself.

Reward and punishment depends on what is considered good or bad. In the situation of riding a bike, good would be measured by the effort to learn how to ride a bicycle and eventually completing the task of being able to ride without any help from someone else or training wheels. Taking that into account, my father may have chosen to provide me with a reward such as taking me out for an ice cream cone after completing the task. This would also provide more motivation to learn how to ride the bicycle. Bad would be measured by the loss of enthusiasm or quitting due to wrecking the bike. In this situation, my father could have punished me if I would have given up and quit. He may have not allowed me to watch television or play video games as a punishment. However, I was so excited about learning to ride a bicycle that I was determined to learn regardless of wrecking or getting hurt.

In my situation, I believe that the most effective form of instrumental conditioning would be positive reinforcement. I recall my father being very patient, understanding, and encouraging when attempting to teach me to ride a bike. Each time I would wreck, he would tell me how much better I was doing than the previous time. Of course, that positive reinforcement may have been somewhat of a facade but it kept me from giving up and quitting. It also led to me learning how to ride a bicycle.

While learning to ride a bike, my father was always calm and positive offering me words of encouragement rather than making critical remarks. I believe this sort of reinforcement absolutely helped me maintain my focus in accomplishing my goal of learning to ride a bike. Although he did not use any type of reward or punishment for my efforts, there are many people who find those forms of instrumental conditioning to be effective. Because my father used positive reinforcement with his optimism and certainty, I learned to ride a bicycle.


Gould, J. (2008). Conditioning: Operant vs. Classical . Retrieved

from on February 8, 2009.

Levine, A. (1999). Operant conditioning . Retrieved from on February 8, 2009.

Staddon, J.E.R. (2009). Reward and punishment. Retrieved from on February 8, 2009.

Terry, W.S. (2006). Learning and memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures. Boston,

MA: Pearson/Allyn Bacon.

Thorndike, E.L. (1911). Animal intelligence: experimental studies. New York. Macmillan.


Submit a Comment
  • A Perfect Chef profile imageAUTHOR

    John Smith 

    8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

    Thanks for the information. I will have to check into it. Thanks for reading.

  • profile image


    8 years ago

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