What is Negative Reinforcement? Meaning and Theory Behind It

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If you know nothing about behavioral psychology, then the term negative reinforcement might sound odd. But, in fact, it is one of the four methods behavioral psychologists use to discuss behavior change.

And even though the terminology could be unfamiliar for many, you can hardly find a single person who hasn’t been subject to negative reinforcement.

In essence, it is a method that is used to stimulate certain behavior. The word negative in this context means subtracting or removing stimuli to encourage desired behavior.

Negative reinforcement is used in all social environments, and it can have a considerable effect in supporting certain behavior. This article will take an in-depth analysis of negative reinforcement, how it can be used to support positive behavior, and its implications. Couples often use negative reinforcement without even being aware of it. It is the situation when something negative is removed, and the relationship becomes stronger.

For example, if a couple is having an argument, and one of the partners refuses to talk to the other partner, it creates an odd situation where none of them feels happy.

The decision to discuss the issue and have proper communication is an example of negative reinforcement.

Teachers use negative reinforcement to signal students that they believe in students’ sound reasoning and ability to adhere to rules and obligations.

For instance, when a teacher removes a task or extra homework because of a student’s improved behavior and his class involvement, that student is likely to continue his/her good behavior.

The sports arena is a place where players need constant improvement and motivation to succeed, so no doubt that both forms of reinforcement are frequently used.

Negative reinforcement in sports includes removing something undesirable that follows a good behavior.

For instance, after a winning match, the team is allowed to skip the training for the day and enjoy their free time outdoors.

Or, if a player was given a time-out, returning to the game is also an example of negative reinforcement.

What is Negative Reinforcement? Definition, Meaning and Theory

Today we are all aware that we can influence other people’s behavior in one way or another.

As a result, there are numerous psychological branches that analyze how people shape and transform their behavior.

And while many of them differ in their approaches, behavioral psychology rests upon Skinner’s operant conditioning theory.

This theory recognizes four methods that can impact the way people behave. The two main concepts of this theory are the ones of punishment and reinforcement.

He added the terms negative and positive within these concepts, but not as something good or bad.

Namely, negative in this theory means removing or subtracting something that either discourages negative behavior (punishment) or removes adverse stimuli to support or encourage certain behavior (reinforcement).

Therefore, negative reinforcement is one of the four methods that influence behavior. In other words, the behavior is encouraged by avoiding a negative outcome or removing a stimulus that causes frustration, anger, or aversion.

Take, for instance, angry parents that argue with their teenage daughter about the mess in her room. Arguing is the aversive stimulus that influences the daughter to clean up the mess.

Once she has done it, her parents’ anger is gone, and they get on well. Seeing the positive home environment and her parents’ satisfaction is likely to influence the girl to clean her room every time her room gets untidy.

Every type of taking precaution measures represents negative reinforcement as well. For instance, if you go to the beach without applying sunscreen, the chances are you’re going to get sunburnt.

So, to avoid this unfortunate situation, every time before heading to the beach, you apply sunscreen and have your skin protected.

How Negative Reinforcement Works in Psychology?

Skinner argued that people’s behavior is mostly determined by external influences, not just by their nature.

He saw the direct relationship between behavior and consequences that occur after people do something. Reinforcement is one of those factors that exert behavioral transformation when used adequately.

Negative reinforcement in this aspect means removing something that causes distress, discomfort, and frustration to encourage specific behavior.

Conversely, the absence of the aversive stimuli creates feelings of comfort, assurance, and content, motivating them to continue behaving in the same way.

When discussing negative reinforcement, it is important to remember that it isn’t something negative or punishable.

It just refers to the process of removing the aversive stimuli so that the person continues behaving in the same way.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

We can encounter negative reinforcement in numerous situations, often without even being aware that it is negative reinforcement.

Let’s take a look at several examples:


We can come across an array of examples used in parenting, as parents have the strongest impact on their children’s behavior.

Example 1: Think of a situation when parents try to stimulate their children to pick up their toys.

An example of negative reinforcement on such occasions would be when parents stop scolding their child after picking up the toys.

As a result, the child learns that her responsible behavior makes her parents satisfied and is likely to continue the activity.

Negative reinforcement: Parents stop scolding the child because she takes responsibility for picking up the toys after she’s done playing with them.

Example 2: Another example of negative reinforcement represents the removal of strict parental controls on electronic devices after children become responsible and mature enough to decide which content is harmful to them and consciously avoid it.

Granting freedom to decide for themselves makes children feel important and respected.

Negative Reinforcement: Children are no longer supervised and controlled by their parents what they watch as they show maturity and awareness of what is right or wrong.

Example 3: It is not just parents who unconsciously utilize negative reinforcement, but children do it. Consider a situation when a crying baby wakes up at night and starts crying.

Her crying wakes up the mother, who feeds and rocks the baby back to sleep. The child understands that every time she cries, one of the parents comes to comfort her, and her crying stops.

Negative Reinforcement: By satisfying the baby’s needs, the discomfort and crying stop, which is an example of negative reinforcement.


In classrooms, we can also encounter the use of negative reinforcement. Here’re some examples:

Example 1: Students are given lots of reading materials as a home activity because they weren’t careful in class.

They complain and promise that they will do whatever it takes to be released from additional tasks.

The teacher removes the reading material from their compulsory homework activities as the students improve their behavior.

Negative Reinforcement: Removing unpleasant stimuli and motivating the students to be more careful and observant.

Example 2: It is not uncommon to notice a classroom mess during the school break. When this happens, teachers often scold the students and make them clean the classroom.

To prevent that from happening, students clean the classroom in advance.

Negative reinforcement: Teachers no longer complain and scold the students.

Different Social Situations

Example 1: Most of us feel incredibly frustrated when being stuck in a traffic jam for hours. This usually results in being late for home or work.

In the attempt to arrive on time, you might look for another route with less traffic. Finding such a route will result in less stress and punctuality, so you decide to change the route for good.

Negative Reinforcement: Changing the route removes the negative stimuli (being stuck in the traffic jam), leading to a behavior change ( adopting a new route).

Example 2: You live with a roommate, and you’ve agreed that you’re the one who’ll do the cooking. However, failing to do your share in the house turns into a heated argument with your roommate.

You realize that your behavior has led to a conflict that can impact your relationship, so you decide to change your habits.

Negative Reinforcement: To avoid future arguments, your behavior improves, and you do your share in the house.

Example 3: If you are struggling with overeating or can’t resist food, then you already know how difficult it is to go on a diet.

This causes excessive weight gain and health problems. Worried that your health might deteriorate, you start visiting a nutritionist and following a strict diet regime.

That makes you feel less obsessed with food, and you feel confident that you have found your solution to the food problem.

Negative reinforcement: The visit to the nutritionist and the regime remove the need for food, so you start eating healthier food.

Reinforcement Schedules: When & How Often

Since reinforcement aims to strengthen certain behavior, scheduling practically means declaring a rule on what behavior type will be reinforced and under which conditions.

You can find examples of reinforcement schedules in natural conditions or structured training occurrences.

When it happens naturally, reinforcement doesn’t occur every time it happens, and it is rather unpredictable and situational.

On the other hand, intended reinforcement for a particular purpose has specific timing that increases its efficiency (animal training, school, or sports).

Reinforcement Schedule Types

Behavioral psychologists recognize two basic forms of reinforcement schedules:

  • Continuous Reinforcement
  • Partial Reinforcement

Continuous Reinforcement

Continuous reinforcement means strengthening the desired behavior every time it occurs.

It is the most recommended technique to stimulate new processes or new activities because the link between the response and the behavior is the most evident.

In other words, when teaching new activity, the desired response gets followed by a defined consequence that stimulates the behavior.

Partial (Intermittent) Reinforcement

This reinforcement type follows continuous reinforcement after establishing a firm response.

As the name implies, it doesn’t happen every time the desired behavior happens, but periodically, to enhance already learned behavior.

Thus, it is a more natural form of reinforcement and sufficient to strengthen the behavior.

Partial reinforcement has four schedules:

  • Fixed-Ratio Schedules – Here, the reinforcement occurs after a specific number of responses that you have previously set. For instance, if you teach a child to write, you will stimulate him/her only after they have written five sentences.
  • Variable-Ratio Schedules – The reinforcement here occurs after a random number of responses, but the rate usually is steady. It is a method used in casinos and gambling sites to stimulate the participants.
  • Fixed-Interval Schedules – Here, the reinforcement happens after a certain point of time has passed.
  • Variable-Interval Schedules – With these schedules, the behavior is reinforced after an undetermined time has passed. The rate of response here is slow and steady.

Negative Reinforcement for Kids

As you can assume, negative reinforcement finds its use when shaping children’s behavior as well.

However, using negative reinforcement with children should be used in conjunction with positive reinforcement (adding stimuli like praises or prizes).

In other words, when children show a response when you remove certain aversive stimuli, you should award such behavior so that it is additionally enhanced.

Imagine your child has a sweet tooth and frequently eats sugary food but refuses to brush his teeth regularly. After some time, the child starts complaining about having a toothache.

The visit to the dentist is obvious distress for the child, and he realizes that not taking proper care of his teeth and eating too much sugary food leads to dentist’s visits.

As a result, he starts brushing his teeth and reduces the intake of sugary food. The adverse stimuli, i.e., going to the dentist, has impacted positive behavior in the child.

To fortify this behavior, you can use positive reinforcement, i.e., praise the child for his smart decision.

Remember that negative reinforcement has a maximum effect when used immediately after the response, and it needs to be repeated as many times as possible.

Scheduling the reinforcement is also a recommended tactic, offering timed and random behavior encouragement.

Negative Reinforcement in the Classroom

As discussed above, negative reinforcement is also used to enhance students’ productivity and efficacy.

Yet, similar to negative reinforcement used with kids in a familiar environment, it should be combined with positive reinforcement.

Students love being praised in front of their peers, giving them a sense of importance and fulfillment.

Teachers are also encouraged to use the strength-based approach, i.e., to motivate students to work on their strengths without focusing too much on their weaknesses.

This method has shown excellent results in environments where individuals work on self-developing or add value to what they are doing.

Needless to say that when students do what they love, their impetus to get better is increased, so they are often rewarded.

In addition, removing any adverse factors (subjects they hate or aren’t good at) is a negative reinforcement that is likely to enhance students’ dedication to what they truly love doing.

For instance, imagine a student who is bad at chemistry but adores biology. An example of negative reinforcement would be removing some of the chemistry tasks the student is doing and involving him in more biology projects.

The chances are that the student will excel in biology, which will make him proud of himself and strengthen his confidence.

Negative Reinforcement Vs Negative Punishment

Reinforcement and punishment are the two key concepts in Skinner’s operant conditioning. While both influence behavior change, their end goals greatly differ.

Reinforcement aims to encourage or stimulate certain behavior, while punishment discourages or prevents a certain behavior from happening.

The only thing they have in common is the way they are carried out. Namely, negative in both methods means that something is removed or taken away to influence behavior change.

Negative Punishment Examples

  • Classroom: One of the most common negative punishments in the classroom is the situation when the student is taken his/her smartphone away because he answered a call while the teacher was speaking. The act of removing the student’s phone is expected to influence his behavior in the future.
  • Workplace: In many companies, employees work on projects with tight deadlines and multiple targets. If your efficiency level is lower than expected and you do not meet the deadline, the manager will likely exclude you from the bonus list or even lower your salary.
  • Home: Parents often struggle with their children when it comes to eating vegetables. So, if the child refuses to eat her veggies, a typical negative punishment would be not allowing any sweets for the day.

Negative Reinforcement Vs Positive Reinforcement

One of the most common misconceptions about negative and positive reinforcement is thinking of them as good or bad.

However, they are both methods used to foster behavior. And, as we have said, positive reinforcement means that a stimulus is added to strengthen a behavior, unlike negative reinforcement, where usually adverse stimuli are removed.

You can think of positive reinforcement as methods that stimulate or engage a person in a specific, desired behavior.

The most common forms of positive reinforcement include verbal praise, promotion, appreciation, or reward.

It is a very effective method, and it is widely used in all social environments.

Let’s take a look at the following examples:

  • Classroom: When a student studies hard for an exam and passes the exam, he receives an appraisal from the teacher and his social surroundings. This motivates the student to work harder.
  • Home: Praising children and rewarding their good behavior is the most preferred method by parents worldwide, and it is the foundation that builds upon children’s confidence.
  • Workplace: A typical example of positive reinforcement at a workplace is salary increase, promotion, or recognition.

Pros and Cons of Negative Reinforcement

Advantages of Negative Reinforcement

  • Negative reinforcement usually delivers immediate results, and it takes a lower effort to impose the desired behavior.
  • With negative reinforcement, you don’t need constant follow-up, as removing the adverse stimuli is effective enough to maintain the behavior.
  • It can increase a person’s self-confidence and boost his/her potentials.

Disadvantages of Negative Reinforcement

  • Since the removal of negative stimuli is self-explanatory, negative reinforcement can discourage communication, leading to misunderstanding.
  • It imposes compliant behavior without much choice left.
  • Non-compliance can have an opposite effect, and when used in animal training, it can be even dangerous.
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