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Negative Reinforcement

Abhijit Naik Oct 28, 2018
Not many people out there know what negative reinforcement actually is. If you happen to be one of them, we will help you get well-versed with its details.
The theory of 'operant conditioning', put forth by noted American psychologist, B. F. Skinner, is widely used in behavioral studies. Skinner states that reinforcement and punishment are the core tools of operant conditioning that can be used to influence a person's behavior.
Reinforcement refers to the delivery of stimulus after a response to increase the probability of that particular response. It is further divided into two types.
  • Positive reinforcement, wherein a particular stimulus is presented right after the action in order to increase its probability.
  • Negative reinforcement, wherein the stimulus is removed after the action in order to increase its probability.

What is Negative Reinforcement?

As we mentioned earlier, it is a part of 'operant conditioning', wherein a particular action or behavior is reinforced by removal of the stimulus. Normally, we are willing to do some activity which will make sure that we are not subjected to something we dislike; negative reinforcement banks on this very fact.
As it can have long-term effects, one has to pay careful attention when resorting to the same. Strangely, it is also one of the most misunderstood concepts in psychology, mainly because of our tendency to go by literal meaning of the word 'negative' in this context.
One has to understand that when it comes to this form of reinforcement, the word negative implies something 'bad' or 'unpleasant'.


When subjected to negative reinforcement, an individual willingly undergoes a change in his behavior to avoid some unwanted consequences. The authorities of the prison reducing the sentence of some inmate owing to his good behavior, is by far one of the best examples of this. There exist several other examples which we are subjected to on day-to-day basis.
A class of students is told that they don't have to answer the term test, if they attend an extra hour of class every day for the next one week. In this example, the term test is an 'unwanted consequence' and the willingness on the part of the students to attend extra hour of class in a bid to avoid this unwanted consequence is the change in behavior.
If the same class is told that whichever student tops the term test will get a set of encyclopedias, it would be an example of positive reinforcement, as students would put in more efforts to get the reward. Other examples range from cleaning home on a regular basis to avoid mess, to leaving for work early to avoid traffic jams.
As a parent, you continuously nag your child to do a particular thing and eventually your child gives in to your nagging! In other words, your child gives in to your demands to avoid being continuously nagged at.
Negative reinforcement can also work the other way round at times, and that can be problematic. Some examples of the same include a child feigning stomach ache to avoid school or a student purposely indulging in some behavior, which will result in him being thrown out of the class, to avoid the class.
Though they sound similar, negative reinforcement and punishment are two different concepts, with the former helping an individual avoid unwanted consequences and latter weakening the individual's behavior by subjecting him to a negative condition as a consequence of the said behavior.