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Negative reinforcement strengthens a behavioral response by taking away a negative outcome. In this lesson, you will learn the characteristics of negative reinforcement and see examples of this type of conditioning.

Definition of Negative Reinforcement

It’s a beautiful, sunny day and you are going outside to swim some laps in the pool. You change into your bathing suit and head out the door. Suddenly, you remember that you forgot to put on sunscreen. You want to avoid sunburn, so you go back inside, get the bottle of sunscreen, and apply it before returning to the pool.

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This is an example of negative reinforcement, which strengthens a behavior by taking away a negative outcome as an effect of the behavior. When a negative result is avoided by performing a specific action, the preventative behavior becomes more likely to occur again in the future.Think about why you went back to put on the sunscreen. You’ve likely learned from experience that a sunburn hurts very badly. Applying the sunscreen is a behavior response to avoid the negative outcome of sunburn; and so, avoiding sunburn is a negative reinforcement for putting on sunscreen.

Characteristics of Negative Reinforcement

The American psychologist B.

F. Skinner first described negative reinforcement in his theory of operant conditioning. He noticed that behaviors were reinforced when they prevented, or provided escape from, a negative outcome. Through experiments, he proved that negative reinforcement would cause an increase in the occurrence of a behavior over time. Negative reinforcement is most effective when it takes place immediately after a behavior. This is because the longer the amount of time between a behavior and the avoidance of a negative outcome, the weaker the connection between the two will be.

Due to the connotations of the word ‘negative,’ some confuse negative reinforcement with punishment; however, the two are not the same. Negative reinforcement is used to increase the likelihood that a behavior will reoccur, while punishment is used to decrease a behavior’s occurrence.Let’s look at the following examples to better understand the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment:Say you live with a roommate, and it’s your night to do the dishes; however, you skip the dishes and opt to go to a movie instead. As a result, your roommate gets back at you by piling all the dirty dishes on your bed. This is an example of punishment;you are less likely to shirk your dish duties in the future in order to avoid your roommate’s vengeance.

Now let’s look at the same situation as an example of negative reinforcement. Again, it’s your night to do the dishes, but you want to catch a 7 p.m. showing at the movie theater.

Knowing that skipping the dishes will incite a confrontation between you and your roommate, you complete your dish-cleaning duty before leaving. The behavior is doing the dishes, and the negative reinforcement is avoiding a conflict between you and your roommate.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

Here are some more examples of negative reinforcement to help you better understand the concept. Can you find the negative reinforcement in each of the following examples?

  • You leave the house early to avoid getting stuck in traffic and being late for work.
  • You study for your test in chemistry to avoid getting a failing grade.

  • You eat before taking your medicine to avoid a stomach ache.
  • You jog a different route to avoid being chased by a dog.
  • You do what your basketball coach tells you to do to avoid having to sit on the bench.

Lesson Summary

Negative reinforcement strengthens a behavior response by taking away a negative outcome.

It was first described by B.F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning. Negative reinforcement is most effective when it takes place immediately following a behavior. Negative reinforcement and punishment are different concepts, and it is important not to confuse the two.

Learning Outcomes

You should be able to do the following after watching this video:

  • Define what negative reinforcement is
  • Recall who first described negative reinforcement
  • List some of the characteristics of negative reinforcement
  • Differentiate between negative reinforcement and punishment
  • Provide some examples of negative reinforcement

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