Negative Reinforcement and Positive ReinforcementToday, I wanted to talk about a misnomer I hear all the time that drives me up a wall. Negative reinforcement. Many people hear the phrase and picture scenes of scolding and beratement. They believe that since positive reinforcement means rewarding someone then negative reinforcement must mean punishing someone. I’d like to clear this up right now.

The concepts of negative and positive reinforcement (and negative and positive punishment, which we will get to in a second) came from B.F. Skinner, a behavioral scientist in the 20th century. He suggested that actions were not as freely chosen as we may think, but instead they are a product of our perception of the results of said actions. To put it another way, we are more likely to repeat actions if we think something good will happen as a result. He called this, reinforcement. By the same token, we are less likely to repeat an action if we think something bad will happen. He called this, punishment.  (Please note, this is an extremely over-simplified version of Mr. Skinner’s life work, but it will suffice for our purposes.)

So, if reinforcement is what you do when you want a behavior to increase and punishment is what you do when you want a behavior to decrease, where do the positive and negative parts fit in? I’m so glad you (probably) asked! It’s very simple actually. Positive and negative refer to either the addition or subtraction of stimuli.  Here’s a chart with some descriptions and examples.

Method Description Example
Positive Reinforcement Adding stimuli to increase a behavior Reward a child for getting good grades
Negative Reinforcement Removing stimuli to increase a behavior Stop nagging when someone does what you ask
Positive Punishment Adding stimuli to decrease a behavior Reprimand a subordinate for being late
Negative Punishment Removing stimuli to decrease a behavior Take away TV privileges from a misbehaving child

In each instance, you can identify a stimuli that is either being added or removed and a behavior that you would like to either encourage or discourage. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? The idea of “positive” or “negative” referring to how the recipient “feels” is very unscientific. What feels “good” to one person may feel “bad” to another. It stands to reason that the definition for a scientific term would be more concrete and measurable.

So what can you do with this information? Another fine question!  First, the next time someone says you to you, “I don’t yell at my subordinates because I don’t’ believe in negative reinforcement,” you can say, “Actually, you don’t believe in positive punishment!” But more seriously, (and practically) you are probably intuitively doing these things already without defining them as such. But, by understanding the theory behind the concepts, you can more deliberately put them to work for you. You now know you should focus your efforts on identifying the appropriate stimuli that your learners would like added or removed and use those in your training efforts.

“Negative reinforcement” has gotten a bad rap for far too long. Knowing its true meaning means you can move beyond its “negative” connotation and instead see it for the valuable tool it is.

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