The Concept of Positive Reinforcement Explained With Examples

Of late, the idea of replacing corporal punishment with 'positive reinforcement' in schools has garnered a lot of support from all sections of the society.
If psychologists are to be believed, punishment does decrease the frequency of some unwanted behavior by a certain extent, but only up till a point of time. Eventually, the suppressed impulses surface in the form of severe emotional outbursts, which makes it even more risky. As opposed to this, positive reinforcement is quite helpful for inculcating positive behavior in a child, as this method resorts to rewarding for a particular behavior instead of suppressing the behavior by punishment.

Reinforcement: An Overview

In psychology, 'operant conditioning' is a concept wherein the antecedent and consequence of a person's behavior is used to influence the occurrence and form of his behavior. This concept, which was put forth by eminent American psychologist, B. F. Skinner, has three tools: reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Of these three, reinforcement, i.e., resorting to consequence which increases the probability of particular behavior, is one of the most widely used tool in behavioral studies. Reinforcement is further divided into two forms: (i) positive reinforcement, wherein the stimulus is delivered after the behavior, and (ii) negative reinforcement, wherein the stimulus is removed after the behavior.

How Does Positive Reinforcement Work?

As we mentioned earlier, 'positive reinforcement' is a form of reinforcement in operant conditioning, wherein the stimulus is delivered immediately or shortly after the behavior in order to increase the probability/frequency of the said behavior. In this case, the stimulus is rewarding or appetitive, which, in turn, prompts the individual to repeat his behavior. The stimulus may range from simple praises to more expensive rewards.

Some psychologists are of the opinion that positive reinforcement is the best bet, but only when it is used properly. The difference between a reward and bribe is very fine, and one has to make sure that the latter is not put to use in course of conditioning. Given below are some examples which will help you understand the concept with ease.
  • In the Skinner Box (a.k.a. operant conditioning chamber developed by B. F. Skinner) experiment, the rat is given food every time he presses a lever. In this case, food (appetitive) is stimulus, while pressing the lever is a behavior which has to be inculcated in that rat. Eventually, the animal's mind is conditioned in such a manner that it presses the lever every time it feels hungry and wants food.
  • You may have not realized it, but you must have been a part of positive reinforcement at some point of time, either as a subject or enforcer. A classic example of this would be parents inculcating the habit of cleaning dishes after food, or making bed after waking up, in lieu of extra time to play or to watch television, or a weekend at the mall.
  • In what can be defined as one of the best examples of this concept, the students are given an assignment and told that the best three assignments will be rewarded with an encyclopedia each. In this case, the encyclopedia is the reward, while putting efforts to do the assignment is the positive behavior. Similarly, praising the students or giving stars to acknowledge their efforts also amounts to positive reinforcement in the classroom.
Even though most of the examples that we have mentioned in the article are related to human behavior, the concept of positive reinforcement works very well with animals as well―dogs and cats especially. In fact, this form of reinforcement is quite popular in dog training, wherein the dog is rewarded for its behavior with food or by simple patting.