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Negative Reinforcement Explained

Updated on June 21, 2018
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Brian has a Masters of Education from Southern Utah University. He works as a behavior specialist & is training to be a behavior analyst.

Reviewing the Basics

In order to understand reinforcement, we need to understand the basics. Reinforcement is when something happens (a stimulus) following a behavior that increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring. The terms positive and negative refer to the adding or removal of an item or stimulus following a behavior to increase the likelihood of that behavior happening. Positive and negative are not referring to how someone perceives it. Only whether it is something added or taken away.

Punishment is something that happens following a behavior that decreases the likelihood of that behavior happening in the future. A later tutorial will cover this topic, but it is important to note that the terms positive and negative are applied the same way. A positive punishment is when an item or stimulus is added. A negative punishment is when an item or stimulus is taken away. Remember, if the behavior increases due to an item or stimulus it's being reinforced, but if it is decreasing due to an item or stimulus it is being punished.

Example of what is commonly mistaken for negative reinforcement.

What is NOT Negative Reinforcement

The video above is a perfect example of what people commonly mistake negative reinforcement to be. In this particular example, the "scientist" is applying an aversive in an attempt to reduce the behavior. Answer the question below before moving forward:

Understanding Check # 1

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Applied Behavior Analysis is based on the idea that behaviors happen for a reason and that with the right tools we can identify those reasons.
Applied Behavior Analysis is based on the idea that behaviors happen for a reason and that with the right tools we can identify those reasons.

If you chose positive punishment, you would be right, sort of... You the undesirable behavior was not only not decreased, but another behavior was reinforced. The behavior of aggression. And yes, it is understood that commercial was done out of humor, and it is funny. The being addressed here is not the humor, but the misconceptions surrounding applied behavior analysis. Understanding how reinforcers and punishers affect behavior is central addressing problems we face in this world. One of the side effects of punishment is actually demonstrated in the video, but that is for a later tutorial on punishment.

The Math Teacher & Negative Reinforcement

The idea behind reinforcement is that we are attempting to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior. So in the case of negative reinforcement, we are removing a stimulus in order to increase the desired behavior.

A very good example of removing a stimulus in order to increase desired behaviors is the math teacher who has the class practice on a worksheet she designed. Unlike the typical worksheet, with the one she designed if the students show their work, they only have to do the first half of the worksheet. On the other hand, if they do not show their work they are required to do the entire worksheet when she or her aide comes by to check their progress.

The target behavior is for the student to show his or her work. Research shows that students who show their work when completing math assignments have a higher level of comprehension and a higher rate of learning compared to those who do not. Therefore, the option of not having to complete the entire worksheet means that the desired behavior of writing out their work is reinforced.

It is also important to note that the teacher and aide in this example also provided positive reinforcement in the form of praise for effort. Rarely is one reinforcement used by itself in practice. This is a real-world example.

Another video example of negative reinforcement

The Danger of Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is based on the desire to escape or avoid negative stimulus. Unlike positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement has some dangers associated with it. Most notable is the ethical dangers of negative reinforcement. In order for there to be reinforcement using negative reinforcement, there needs to be a removal of an undesired stimulus. If the stimulus is added so that it can be taken away we go into the realm of punishment, and punishment causes problems when used too frequently. It is better to look for more natural negative reinforcers to avoid abuse of this method, although example such as the math teacher and coach above are cases where negative reinforcement by design is both ethical and effective. Another way of looking at it is as consequence based thinking. If the consequence of the desired behavior is for there to be a reduction in an undesired stimulus such as a task then you have negative reinforcement.

Understanding Check # 2

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The Importance of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement has fewer pitfalls than negative reinforcement because it is not motivated by escape or avoidance. Furthermore, in many ways, positive reinforcement is easier. Adding something like genuine praise for a job well done, or giving bonus points for effort, or even getting a small treat are all examples of positive reinforcement. There is such a thing as over or underdoing positive reinforcement and there are ethical questions associated with this form reinforcement as well, but they are far less likely compared to negative reinforcement or any form of punishment. This isn't to say that they should not be used. Just that any use should be governed by considering and weighing the ethical problems surrounding the application of this knowledge.

Timing is EVERYTHING!!!

It is also important to understand that timing is everything regardless of what sort of reinforcement that is being used. The longer one waits before reinforcing a behavior the higher the likelihood that the wrong behavior will be reinforced. Too often a parent or teacher will say something along the lines of, "You are just bribing them to do what they should already do!" The best response to this is asking if that thing is already happening independently. If the answer is no, but they want the behavior to increase, reinforcement must be done. Schedules of reinforcement are the next topic which will be covered and the way in which reinforcements are delivered does how behaviors are reinforced.
Similarly, it is important that the reinforcement is at the right intensity or magnitude. Getting a jellybean for cleaning an entire house is likely to be perceived as a cruel joke or punishment, not as a reward. Likewise, washing one glass for a child and saying, "Since you did a good job I helped you!" is also likely to backfire. And opposite direction for intensity or magnitude is important too. Giving a kid a car for doing one assignment or letting them take a week of off school for that assignment are overkill.

Final Comprehension Check

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© 2018 Brian Middleton

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