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Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Weighing the Effects of Positive and Negative Reinforcement

A brief write-up on positive and negative reinforcement, the two forms of reinforcement put forth by B. F. Skinner in his concept of operant conditioning.
Abhijit Naik
Last Updated: Dec 10, 2017
Operant conditioning is a concept in psychology, wherein the 'antecedent' or 'consequence' of an individual's behavior is used to influence the occurrence and form of this behavior. The concept, which was developed by B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist, has become quite popular in behavioral studies. In Skinner's operant conditioning, 'reinforcement' and 'punishment' are the core tools, while 'extinction' is considered an additional tool.
Among these three tools of operant conditioning, reinforcement refers to delivery or removal of the 'stimulus' immediately or shortly after the particular behavior in order to increase the probability of the said response. Reinforcement is further divided into two types ...
  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Negative Reinforcement
Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning
As we mentioned earlier, the process in which 'stimulus' is delivered or removed either immediately or shortly after a particular behavior is referred to as reinforcement. When the stimulus is 'delivered' immediately after the behavior to increase the probability/frequency of the behavior, it is referred to as 'positive reinforcement'. On the other hand, when the stimulus is 'removed' immediately after the behavior to increase the probability/frequency of the behavior it is referred to as 'negative reinforcement'. In the first case, stimulus tends to be rewarding and this prompts the individual to repeat the behavior. In contrast, in the second case, the aversive stimulus is removed, and therefore, the individual is prompted to repeat his behavior.
Examples of Positive and Negative Reinforcement
If the introduction to these two forms of reinforcement given above was intricate, going through some examples will make it easier for you to understand them.
Skinner Box Examples
In order to demonstrate reinforcement, Skinner used the operant conditioning chamber (A.K.A. Skinner Box) that he had created when he was a graduate at the Harvard University. It was a laboratory apparatus which was used to study the behavior of animals. Owing to the fact that this apparatus was developed by Skinner himself, it is also known as the 'Skinner Box' and the animal experiments carried out using this apparatus are known as 'Skinner Box experiments'.
  • Positive Reinforcement: A rat is given food every time he presses a lever in the Skinner Box. As a result of this rewarding stimulus, the rat is encouraged to press the lever in the box repeatedly when he is hungry.
  • Negative Reinforcement: Loud music is played within the operant conditioning box, which is stopped only when the rat presses the lever. The repetition of this incident conditions the rat's mind to press the lever to stop the music.
General Examples
While those were some laboratory examples, there also exist several examples of these concepts in our day-to-day life. The most prominent difference between these two forms of reinforcement is that the former rewards an individual to inculcate positive behavior in him or her, while the latter forces him to modify his behavior to do away with some unwanted consequence of the same.
  • Positive Reinforcement: A mother tells her son to make his bed after waking up in the morning and promises to give him a candy if he does so every day. In this case, the positive behavior is making the bed every day, while stimulus is the candy which is offered as a reward. A similar example in the classroom is where teacher gives the student who tops the class some reward which prompts the whole class to put in efforts and try to top.
  • Negative Reinforcement: Every day when you leave for work in the morning, you have to make your way through heavy traffic to reach your workplace. Then, one day you realize that if you leave from your place half an hour earlier, you don't have to face any traffic problems on your way to the office, and this prompts you to leave early. In this case, heavy traffic is the unwanted consequence, while leaving from home half an hour early is the stimulus.

Simply put, positive reinforcement comes handy when you want to inculcate positive behavior in an individual, while negative reinforcement is apt when you want to avoid some unwanted behavior. In contrast, punishment weakens the individual's behavior by negatively conditioning his mind. Psychologists are of the opinion that punishment decreases the likelihood of a person resorting to some unwanted behavior, only for a certain period. More importantly, it is known to result in emotional outbursts at a later stage and thus, is best avoided.