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Reinforcements are stimuli that can strengthen or weaken specific behaviors. Learn about the many different ways that rewards and punishment are used to change and reinforce people’s behaviors, and find out why some are more effective than others.

Positive ; Negative Reinforcement

One of the many ways in which people learn is through operant conditioning. Operant conditioning simply means learning by reinforcement.

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There are a number of factors involved in reinforcing an individual’s behaviors, and by applying reinforcements, we can increase and/or decrease behaviors as well.There are multiple types of reinforcement that can be used in operant conditioning. The two most common forms are known as positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

It is important to note that, in this case, the words positive and negative do not mean good or bad. Instead, they mean you are adding (positive) or removing (negative) something in order to strengthen the desired behavior. Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment; however, they are not the same.Positive reinforcement occurs when a token or reward is given to strengthen a desired behavior. For example, if a child cleans her room, she may receive a candy bar or a toy as a reward.

The reward will serve to strengthen the behavior because the child will be more likely to continue with this desired behavior in order to receive the reward.Likewise, negative reinforcement also strengthens a behavior, but it does so by removing something that is unwanted. For instance, when you get into your car and put the key in the ignition, you might hear a loud bell or ringing sound. In order for the bell to stop, you need to put your seatbelt on. This is an example of negative reinforcement.

In order for the sound to be removed, you need to fasten your seatbelt.


Punishment is another form of reinforcement, and it can be both positive and negative, as well. Just as with positive and negative reinforcement, the words positive and negative are not related to good or bad; instead they mean adding or removing a punishment.

As opposed to reinforcement, punishment is intended to decrease the likelihood of an undesirable behavior.Positive punishment occurs when we introduce something to stop an unwanted behavior. For example, if a child behaves in a manner that a parent sees as wrong or even dangerous, like running into a busy street with cars driving by, the parent might scold or spank the child. Both of those serve to decrease the likelihood that the dangerous and unwanted behavior will occur again.Negative punishment is when we take something away after an undesirable behavior occurs. Again, the goal of punishment is to decrease the behavior.

So, if a child is fighting with her brother, a parent may take away her favorite toy or suspend her TV privileges. By doing so, the parent will decrease the likelihood that the unwanted behavior will continue.

Schedules of Reinforcement

How and when a reinforcement is given can change a person’s response. Because of this, there are also a variety of schedules of reinforcement that can be used to strengthen a behavior.

The word schedule refers to the timing of the reinforcement.The four most commonly used schedules of reinforcement:Fixed SchedulesFixed schedules occur on a regular schedule. Fixed-ratio reinforcing is when a reward is given after a specific number of responses have occurred. For instance, if you are a member of a frequent flyer program, you may receive a reward certificate for free airfare after you earn a certain amount of points.A fixed-interval schedule occurs when we reinforce a behavior after a specific period of time has elapsed. Employees that get a pay check either weekly or biweekly are being paid on a fixed-interval basis.

Knowing that a paycheck will come after working for a period of time strengthens the employee’s likelihood of working regularly.Variable SchedulesVariable schedules occur on an inconsistent or unpredictable basis. Variable-ratio schedules relate to reinforcing the behavior after an unpredictable number of responses. This is most commonly seen when a person plays a slot machine. Most people know that if they play the same machine long enough, eventually they will win something.

A variable-interval schedule reinforces a behavior after an unpredictable period of time has elapsed. For example, students see this most commonly when they are given a pop quiz in class. They do not know exactly when a quiz will be given, so they need to study routinely to assure that they’ll do well if tested.

Lesson Summary

Operant conditioning is one of the most popular ways to adjust behavior. Through positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishments, a person can change their behavior for the better. It is important to remember that when discussing reinforcements and punishments, positive and negative does not mean good and bad.

Instead, positive means something is being added, while negative means that something is being taken away. Schedules of reinforcement are often used in business and education, from gambling and shopping to pop quizzes. The four common types of schedules are fixed-ratio, fixed-interval, variable-ratio, and variable-interval schedules.

Reinforcement: Definitions to Remember

  • Operant conditioning: learning through reinforcement
  • Positive reinforcement: a reward is given to increase the likelihood of a behavior
  • Negative reinforcement: something that is unwanted is taken away to increase the likelihood of a behavior
  • Positive punishment: something undesired is given to decrease the likelihood of a behavior
  • Negative punishment: a desired thing is taken away to decrease the likelihood of a behavior
  • Schedules of reinforcement: the timing of the reinforcements introduced
  • Fixed-ratio: reward is given after the same number of responses
  • Fixed-interval: reward is given after the same amount of time
  • Variable-ratio: reward is given after an unpredictable number of responses
  • Variable-interval: reward is given after an unpredictable amount of time

Learning Outcomes

Upon completion of this lesson, you should be ready to:

  • Define operant conditioning
  • Explain what the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ mean in the context of reinforcement
  • Differentiate between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement
  • Distinguish between positive punishment and negative punishment
  • Define schedule of reinforcement
  • Identify and describe four common schedules of reinforcement

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