Positive Reinforcement – Theory, Practice, Meaning & Examples

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Positive Reinforcement – Theory, Meaning, Examples & How To Guide

If we talk about self-improvement, personality, and behavior modification, it is necessary to discuss one of the basic principles that explain human behavior – reinforcement.

Of the different kinds of reinforcements, positive reinforcement is the most touted and utilized, not only in centers and big businesses but even in schools and homes.

This article will provide you with a detailed guide about what it is, how it works, its types, examples, uses, effectiveness, as well as its pros and cons.

What Is Positive Reinforcement? Definition and Theory

Positive reinforcement is a process that increases the occurrence of the desired behavior by presenting or adding a stimulus called a positive reinforcer) after the behavior, which results in the strengthening of the behavior.

Positive reinforcement is one of the four types of conditioning based on B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning model.

Simply put, rewarding someone for their behavior results in them repeating the behavior. A stimulus is anything that can be taken in by the senses and thus can influence a person.

This may be found in the physical environment (e.g., food) or the social environment (i.e., other people’s behavior). A stimulus is called a reinforcer or positive reinforcer when used in positive reinforcement.

It can be any object or event that is pleasurable, enjoyable or desirable, and can motivate a person.

5 Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Here are 5 examples of positive reinforcement:

Example 1

A couple turned on the aroma diffuser before going to sleep. Noticing that they had a good long sleep last night, they decided to use the aroma diffuser again.

In this example, having a good night’s sleep is rewarding for the couple, reinforcing their use of an aroma diffuser again.

Example 2

A teacher places a star stamp at the back of the child’s hand for answering a question. When the child gets home, his mother notices his star, becomes delighted, and tells her son that he did a good job. This makes the child more eager to earn stars in school.

In this situation, the child’s behavior of answering a question led to him gaining a star. In itself, the star has no value. However since the star is paired with a social reinforcer from the mother, the child’s behavior is reinforced.

Example 3

Upon entering the building, an employee smiles at the guard. This act made the guard smile back. This led the employee to smile at the guard every time she entered the building.

The employee’s smiling behavior led to a favorable response from the guard (being noticed and smiled back), leading to the behavior’s reoccurrence.

Example 4

Every time the baby coos and smiles, her parents smile and kiss her. This makes the baby smile and coo more. The baby’s smiling and cooing behavior reinforces her parents’ attention to her, making the baby smile and coo more.

Similarly, her parents’ behavior of smiling and kissing their baby is also “rewarded” with cute smiles and coos, causing them to repeat their actions.

Example 5

Whenever the child finishes his assignments without errors, his mother allows him to play outside. The extra “playtime” motivates the child not only to finish his work quickly but make sure that they are error-free.

What is Reinforcement in a Behavior?

Reinforcement is defined as a process of strengthening a behavior by using an immediate consequence that reliably follows its occurrence.

When something favorable occurs after the behavior – a favorable event, outcome, or reward – there is a greater likelihood that it will happen again. This chain of responses strengthens the behavior.

Reinforcement may happen naturally due to our daily interactions, or it may be planned as a part of a behavior modification program aimed at improving an individual’s behavior.

An example of a naturally reinforced behavior is when you smile at people, they smile back at you in response. Other people’s positive response towards your behavior of smiling strengthens that behavior.

On the other hand, dog training deliberately uses reinforcements in the form of treats and pats to teach them to do tricks such as “sit,” “roll,” and “stay.”

How do you know if a behavior is already reinforced? Strengthened behavior can easily be determined by checking if there is an increase in its dimensions, namely: its frequency (it happens more), duration (it happens longer), intensity ( it is stronger), and speed ( there are fewer delays in its occurrence).

How Positive Reinforcement Works in Psychology

Every person’s behavior is motivated or caused by something. For example, adults go to work to receive their monthly checks.

They could then use their money to get themselves what they want. Aside from this, doing great at work can lead to recognition and accolades, driving them to do better with their work.

Positive reinforcement works by discovering what motivates a person and using it to increase the chance of the behavior to occur. Companies and organizations, for example, utilize this principle to boost their employees’ efficiency.

Aside from their paycheck, employees can receive bonuses and even social recognition when they do an excellent job with their work. The same goes for schools that use medals, trophies, and credit to motivate students to perform better.

4 Types of Positive Reinforcement

Natural Reinforcers

Natural reinforcers are those that happen directly as a result of a behavior. Eating results to fullness and studying for a quiz yields good test results.

Social Reinforcers

Social reinforcers are responses or behaviors from other people that express approval. These would include taps on the back, claps, smiles, hugs, and words like “great job” or “you’re so awesome!”

Tangible Reinforcers

As the name implies, tangible reinforcers are actual physical rewards. Food, medals, toys, and treats are examples of these. Since these rewards are highly motivating, they are often used at the start when managing behavior.

They can cause dependence; that is, the person will only be motivated to perform a behavior because of anticipation for a reward. Because of this, these reinforcers must be used with caution.

Token Reinforcers

Token reinforcers are a form of economy or reward system where a number of tokens or points could be exchanged for rewards. These are usually represented with stickers and stamps.

Rewards may or may not be tangible. For example, parents can give children a stamp for every chore done. At the end of the day, they may “redeem” the reward where a stamp is equivalent to 5 minutes of screen time.

Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement

Both positive and negative reinforcements are processes used to strengthen a behavior; that is, both aim to increase the probability that the desired behavior will occur again. The two are distinguished by the nature of the consequence that follows the behavior.

In positive reinforcement, once the behavior has occurred, a reinforcer is added. This results in the strengthening of the behavior. In negative reinforcement, the behavior is followed by the removal or decrease of an undesirable stimulus, which also strengthens the behavior.

In positive reinforcement, a positive reinforcer, something valuable, desirable, or pleasant that a person would like to get, directly follows the behavior.

In negative reinforcement, an aversive stimulus, which could be anything annoying, unpleasant, or undesirable object or event that a person wants to avoid, directly follows a behavior.

For example, a child cried and threw himself to the ground at the park when he demanded his mother to buy him a balloon, and she said no. The mother eventually gave in and bought him a balloon to make him stop.

As a result, the mother is more likely to buy her child a balloon the next time he demands and throws a tantrum (aversive stimulus) in the park. This is an example of negative reinforcement.

On the other hand, the child gets a balloon (positive reinforcer) when he throws tantrums. As a result, he is more likely to throw tantrums in the park. This is an example of positive reinforcement.

Downsides of Positive Reinforcement

It is crucial to note that positive reinforcement reinforces any kind of behavior. While it can be used to reinforce desirable behavior deliberately, it can also be accidentally be used to reinforce poor behavior.

For example, kids usually misbehave to get attention from their parents, peers, or teachers. Paying attention to them, even negative attention (i.e., getting irritated or scolding them), is still rewarding for them. Thus, parents who react to their children’s misbehavior reinforce their misbehaving.

Another example is giving in. A person should learn to keep his ground despite strong persuasion. Parents usually fall for this. They will initially say no to their kids. However, their kids’ constant whining and pleading push them to give in to their kid’s requests, accidentally reinforcing the whining behavior of their children.

Overuse of positive reinforcements can also lead to dependence. This means that without the reinforcement, the behavior would not occur.

For example, to make her child eat, a mother turns on the television to keep the child busy. However, the child has gotten used to it and he would no longer eat without a TV in front of him.

Sometimes, overuse of reinforcements can lead to satiation. That is, the person has been exposed to the reinforcing stimulus for a substantial amount of time or has received a high amount of reinforcer and the reinforcer has become less potent.

Positive Reinforcement for Kids

Positive reinforcements are not only effective for adults but also work wonders for kids. In fact, positive parenting, an approach to parenting that focuses on a positive relationship between parents and children, utilizes positive reinforcement.

It can be used in many ways and forms when it comes to raising children. It could teach new skills, unlearn or stop unwanted behaviors, or strengthen already good behaviors.

Here are some suggestions on how positive reinforcement can be used with kids:

  • Limit the use of food and treats as reinforcers. While they are strong reinforcers, they could quickly lead to dependence on and satiation towards the reinforcer. They are good choices when the behavior is not yet established.
  • Praise more often. Children naturally want to please their parents, making praise a very potent form of reinforcement for children.
  • Use social reinforcers. This includes high fives, taps on the back, thumbs up, praises, and clapping.
  • Give extra privileges. Offer kids additional playtime or the power to choose which place to go to during family time.
  • Name the behavior. It is important to be specific with the behavior you want to reinforce.
  • Reward immediately. It is important to reward the behavior as soon as it occurs.
  • Reinforce their effort. Even approximations to the desired behavior should be rewarded. This will encourage kids to work harder towards the goal.

Here are some behaviors that parents commonly reward:

  • Prosocial skills such as sharing, taking turns and waiting
  • Initiating and completing chores
  • Expressing self appropriately
  • Complying to requests
  • Persisting with a difficult task
  • Following instructions
  • Handling big emotions well
  • Waiting patiently
  • Playing quietly and packing toys away

Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

Since the principle of reinforcement is part of who we are as humans, it is expected to be seen at work in anyone, anywhere – even in classrooms.

The knowledge and use of positive reinforcement in the classroom help improve students’ behavior and help teachers prevent misbehavior from being reinforced.

 Here are some tips on the use of positive reinforcement in the classroom

  • Learn to ignore behaviors that you do not want to reinforce.
  • Use activities as reinforcers. Allow them to do tasks that they prefer as a reward for good behavior.
  • Utilize visuals. Children love visuals. Use visuals when using token reinforcers. Make charts and checklists to help them keep track of their progress.
  • Determine what motivates their behavior.
  • Ask them what they prefer as rewards for finishing tasks or participating in recitations.
  • Monitor the progress of the child’s behavior and see if the reinforcer/s used is still effective.
  • Make sure that reinforcers are age-appropriate.
  • Choose the appropriate reinforcement schedule and change or shift to another when necessary.

When Is Positive Reinforcement Most Effective?

The effect of reinforcement is affected by several factors. These include immediacy, consistency, situation, degree/amount, and individual differences.

  • Immediately after the behaviour

For the consequence or stimulus to be an effective reinforcement, it should occur immediately after the behavior. The greater the delay between the behavior and the reinforcer or consequence, the less effective it will be. This is because the connection between the two is weak or cannot be established.

For example, if you want to teach a dog a new trick, you should reward it with a treat as soon as it does the trick you want it to learn. If you don’t, the dog will not see the connection between his action (i.e., the desired trick you want him to learn) and the reward.

  • Clear Connection

A reinforcer is more effective when it only occurs after a behavior occurs. That is, the reinforcer should be contingent upon the behavior.

Using the same example above, if during a training session, the dog does not get rewarded after showing a trick or if he randomly gets a treat even if he doesn’t show the trick or, he will unlikely repeat and learn the trick. In the same way, a person is more likely to repeat a behavior if it consistently results in a consequence or reinforcement.

  • Situation

Some situations make a reinforcement stronger than others. For example, eating in a buffet is more rewarding for a starved person than if they just finished a snack.

A raved concert ticket will be more rewarding if there is limited access to tickets, while it would lose its reinforcing power if it is already expired.

  • Degree/Amount

A greater degree, amount, or intensity is generally a more effective and powerful reinforcer. For example, an employee will work more with a higher salary than with a lower one. A person is more likely to study harder for a national exam than for a short quiz.

  • Individual Differences

Some reinforcers are rewarding for others but not for some. This is because people are motivated by different things according to their preferences. Thus, it is essential to determine what is reinforcing or rewarding to an individual.

In a strength-based approach, for example, an individual’s set of strengths is determined. These sets of strengths not only determine what they are good at but also tell what fuels them. Strengths-based coaches then help these individuals focus and utilize these strengths to achieve their goals.

Reinforcement Schedules: When & How Often

Reinforcement schedules specify when a reinforcement will be presented every time a behavior occurs. The manner and timing of providing reinforcements depend on which level the person is in learning or unlearning a particular behavior. The two main types of reinforcement schedules are as follows:

  • Continuous reinforcement schedule (CRF): the reinforcement is given every time the behavior occurs.
  • Intermittent reinforcement schedule: the behavior is intermittently reinforced.

For example, a young child is being taught how to write. On his first few attempts, his mother praises him every time he can write his name. After a few days, she saw that his child has already learned the skill. She leaves him to finish the worksheet and occasionally checks his work and praises him.

Initially, a continuous schedule was utilized by the mother as the child was still learning the skill. Once the child already learned the skill, his mother shifted to an intermittent schedule. This is to ensure that the child still does the desired behavior of writing his name.

The intermittent reinforcement schedule has four types:

  • Fixed Ratio (FR)

A specific or fixed number of responses must occur before the reinforcement is given. An example of this is workers who get paid per number of tasks or output produced. For instance, most article writers are paid a specific amount per number of words.

  • Variable Ratio (VR)

Similar to a fixed ratio, a reinforcer is provided based on a number of responses. However, the number of behavior responses needed varies each time instead of a fixed number of responses as in a fixed ratio schedule.

An example of this is a person who asks for spare change. The number of people he must approach to receive alms is variable, but the more people he asks for money, the greater the likelihood of getting money. This makes variable-ratio produce more steady and consistent responses compared to fixed-ratio schedules.

  • Fixed Interval (FI)

Here, reinforcement is given after a specific length of time has passed. It does not matter how many times the behavior was shown.

Here, behavior occurrence increases at the end of the interval (when the reinforcement will be given) and decreases at the start of the interval.

For example, a supervisor makes rounds and checks an employee every 3 hours. By the time the supervisor is predicted to approach the employee to check his work, he performs more. However, his performance will likely slow down after the supervisor finishes checking upon him.

  • Variable Interval (VI)

VI is similar to FI; however, each interval in a VI schedule has a different length instead of a fixed time. Because of the unpredictability, behaviors reinforced under VI occur more steadily than in a FI.

In the same example above, the increasing and slowing of the amount of work or performance will not occur due to the supervisor’s rounds’ unpredictability.

Final Word

Positive reinforcement can be used to learn, unlearn, or modify a behavior. Its effectiveness and power make it an essential tool to be learned and applied across various circumstances, from preschools to large organizations.

When used correctly and thoughtfully, this powerful tool that uses a person’s motivation to shape behavior can change not only a person’s life but even society at large.

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