Negative reinforcement is a term described by B. F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning. In negative reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus.
Aversive stimuli tend to involve some type of discomfort, either physical or psychological. Behaviors are negatively reinforced when they allow you to escape from aversive stimuli that are already present or allow you to completely avoid the aversive stimuli before they happen.
Deciding to take an antacid before you indulge in a spicy meal is an example of negative reinforcement. You engage in an action in order to avoid a negative result.
One of the best ways to remember negative reinforcement is to think of it as something being subtracted from the situation. When you look at it in this way, it may be easier to identify examples of negative reinforcement in the real-world.
Examples of Negative Reinforcement
Learn more by looking at the following examples:
- Before heading out for a day at the beach, you slather on sunscreen (the behavior) to avoid getting sunburned (removal of the aversive stimulus).
- You decide to clean up your mess in the kitchen (the behavior) to avoid getting into a fight with your roommate (removal of the aversive stimulus).
- On Monday morning, you leave the house early (the behavior) to avoid getting stuck in traffic and being late for work (removal of an aversive stimulus).
- At dinner time, a child pouts and refuses to each the vegetables on her plate. Her parents quickly take the offending veggies away. Since the behavior (pouting) led to the removal of the aversive stimulus (the veggies), this is an example of negative reinforcement.
Can you identify the negative reinforcer in each of these examples?
Sunburn, a fight with your roommate and being late for work are all negative outcomes that were avoided by performing a specific behavior. By eliminating these undesirable outcomes, the preventative behaviors become more likely to occur again in the future.
Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment
One mistake that people often make is confusing negative reinforcement with punishment. Remember, however, that negative reinforcement involves the removal of a negative condition to strengthen a behavior. Punishment, on the other hand, involves either presenting or taking away a stimulus to weaken a behavior.
Consider the following example and determine whether you think it is an example of negative reinforcement or punishment:
Timmy is supposed to clean his room every Saturday morning. Last weekend, he went out to play with his friend without cleaning his room. As a result, his father made him spend the rest of the weekend doing other chores like cleaning out the garage, mowing the lawn, and weeding the garden, in addition to cleaning his room.
If you said that this was an example of punishment, then you are correct. Because Timmy didn't clean his room, his father punished him by having to do extra chores.
If you are trying to distinguish between negative reinforcement or punishment, consider whether something is being added or taken away from a situation. If something is being added or applied as a consequence of a behavior, then it is an example of punishment. If something is being removed in order to avoid or relieve an unwanted outcome, then it is an example of negative reinforcement in action.
When Is Negative Reinforcement Most Effective?
Negative reinforcement can be an effective way to strengthen the desired behavior. However, it is most effective when reinforcers are presented immediately following a behavior.
When a long period elapses between the behavior and the reinforcer, the response is likely to be weaker. In some cases, behaviors that occur in the intervening time between the initial action and the reinforcer are may also be inadvertently strengthened as well.
Some experts believe that negative reinforcement should be used sparingly in classroom settings, while positive reinforcement should be emphasized. While negative reinforcement can produce immediate results, it may be best suited for short-term use.
The type of reinforcement used is important, but the frequency and schedule used also plays a major role in the strength of the response. The schedule of reinforcement that is used can have an important impact not only how quickly a behavior is learned, but also on the strength of the response.
Coon, D & Mitterer, JO. Introduction to Psychology: Gateways to Mind and Behavior. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2010.
Domjan, MP. The Principles of Learning and Behavior: Active Learning Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning; 2010.
A question that always pops up in behavioral psychology is what the difference is between negative reinforcement and punishment. The confusion is understandable because both forms of control have aversive stimuli embedded within them, in other words something that the organism wants to avoid.
Where they differ then is in their consequences. Punishment tries to make the behavior being punished stop, whereas negative reinforcement tries to make the behavior being negatively reinforced occur more often.
We are negatively reinforced by all kinds of things that end up leading to good consequences actually. For example, it’s negatively reinforcing to be out in the cold rain and so we take shelter, which protects us from getting sick. It’s negatively reinforcing to receive bad marks at school or receive bad reviews at work so we try harder, which helps us do better. It’s negatively reinforcing to get a speeding ticket so we drive the speed limit, which keeps us safe on the roads. The reason all these examples are considered negative reinforcements, not punishments, is that there are specific indicated behaviors that the organism can perform to escape from the aversive stimuli.
Punishment, on the other hand, doesn’t reinforce any specific behavior. It’s only concerned with making the behavior in question stop. The problem with punishment as a form of control is that it tends to only be effective when the threat of punishment is in the organism’s immediate vicinity. The desire to do whatever it was that ended up being punished is not necessarily lessened. When that threat of punishment is nowhere in sight chances are the organism will revert back to the original behavior.
With negative reinforcement it’s different. The control is less obvious. The illusion of freedom is there. All negative reinforcement does is make a behavior more likely to occur in the future by making it reinforcing to the organism to behave in that specific way. You could almost say it’s a side effect that the original behavior that led to aversive consequences disappears.
It might sound like we’re splitting hairs here but the difference really is monumental. Punishments aren’t effective in the long-term as a form of control whereas negative reinforcements are, and this is because the nature of the control is entirely different. Like we said, the first tries to make a behavior stop whereas the second tries to make a behavior more likely to occur.
negative reinforcementpositive reinforcementpunishment