Positive vs Negative Reinforcement – Definitions & Differences

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Positive vs Negative Reinforcement

Operant conditioning is one of the most well-known theories of human behavior.

It is a type of learning that uses reinforcement and punishment to teach, change and control behavior. Reinforcement is about strengthening the likelihood of a behavior.

On the other hand, punishment is about reducing the likelihood of a behavior.

Both reinforcement and punishment can be positive and negative.

Positive means we are adding something, while negative means we are removing something.

There are four types of operant conditioning, which are:

  1. Positive reinforcement
  2. Negative reinforcement
  3. Positive punishment
  4. Negative punishment

In this article, we will be discussing positive and negative reinforcement in terms of their differences and similarities.

Some examples will also be given to increase your understanding of these two concepts.

What is Positive Reinforcement? Definition & Meaning

Positive reinforcement is a reward given for doing something successfully.

Remember the satisfaction of receiving a salary increment or bonus at work when you hit all the KPIs and performed well at work? That is positive reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is an operant conditioning concept in which a subject is given a positive reinforcer to repeat the desired behavior.

In other words, if a behavior performed produces a good response or reward, this behavior is likely to be reinforced.

The goal is to increase the likelihood of the desired behavior.

Rewards or needs such as food, money, recognition, etc., can be used as positive reinforcers to promote the occurrence of the desired behavior.

One thing to keep in mind is that a positive reinforcer might mean differently to different people.

For example, giving incentives or bonuses can be a powerful reinforcer for some employees, but not for all of them.

Some of them may prefer work-life balance, a manager’s appreciation, or flexible working hours.

Thus, it is crucial to identify what kind of reinforcer motivates the person before implementing the reinforcement.

What is Negative Reinforcement? Meaning and Theory

Negative reinforcement is a form of punishment for failing to perform the desired behavior.

Why do employees have to follow the rules and regulations set by their employer? They may get their salary docked or, worse, get fired from their position if they break the rules.

Negative reinforcement refers to a reinforcer, i.e. stimulus, is eliminated due to a specific behavior.

By eliminating the negative stimulus, the frequency of the behavior will rise in the future.

In a nutshell, negative reinforcement refers to using an aversive stimulus to promote a desired behavior or action.

Negative reinforcement is also known as escape or avoidance learning.

This is because the reinforcers are negative, and the subjects will exhibit the desired behavior to avoid or escape the aversive stimulus.

Please note that punishment is not the same as negative reinforcement.

Punishment uses penalty to reduce the likelihood of a behavior occurring.

Negative reinforcement enhances the probability of the behavior occurring to avoid a penalty.

Positive Vs Negative Reinforcement: Which is More Effective?

Both positive and negative reinforcement are equally effective for behavior modification.

There is no definitive answer to whether positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement is more effective.

It depends on the circumstances and the person who receives the reinforcement (or punishment).

Negative reinforcement is found to be more effective at initiating habit modification. Let’s look at this example.

Imagine you noticed that recently you had gained a lot of weight from eating potato chips.

Positive Vs. Negative Reinforcement: Which is More EffectiveKnowing the detrimental effect of chips on your health, you decided not to eat chips anymore.

You set a rule where you will need to pay a penalty of $100 for every pack of chips you eat. In the beginning, you will use every resort to stop yourself from eating the chips to avoid paying the $100 penalty.

But, how long can this negative reinforcement last? Gradually, you may grow tired of this penalty.

Perhaps, you may even switch from eating chips to eating other snacks such as ice-creams or cakes.

This shows that negative reinforcement may not work in the long run. At this juncture, we can then turn to positive reinforcement.

You set yourself a new routine, where you aim to eat a well-balanced diet consisting of fruits and vegetables for five successive days.

If you succeeded in completing this routine, you might reward yourself with a pack of chips at the end of the fifth day.

By rewarding yourself, it will help you to maintain this new routine for the long run.

As we can see from the example above, the combination of negative and positive reinforcement works best to change a behavior or habit.

Negative reinforcement is an excellent way to kickstart your behavior modification, whereas positive reinforcement motivates you to perform the behavior.

Differences Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

1.) Positive reinforcement involves adding a stimulus to improve the likelihood of the desired behavior occurring. Conversely, negative reinforcement increases the probability of the desired behavior by removing an aversive stimulus that the person wants to avoid.

2.) A favorable stimulus is introduced in positive reinforcement. In comparison, an unfavorable stimulus is eliminated in negative reinforcement.

3.) Reinforcers in positive reinforcement tend to lead to favorable outcomes. Reinforcers in negative reinforcement might result in unpleasant or even painful consequences.

4.) The stimuli in positive reinforcement serve as a reward for exhibiting the desired behavior. In contrast, the stimuli in negative reinforcement serve as a penalty for not displaying the desired behavior.

5.) Positive reinforcement aims to increase the likelihood of repeating a desired behavior. On the contrary, negative reinforcement teaches the subjects to avoid unpleasant stimuli.

In the examples that involve positive reinforcement, the subjects are encouraged to work hard because of the reward that they will receive:

  • Salary increment for the employee
  • A gold medal for the children

In the examples that involve negative reinforcement, the subjects are encouraged to work hard by imposing a negative consequence if they fail to meet specific expectations:

  • Working overtime
  • Extra tuition classes on weekend

Similarities Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Regardless of their differences, positive and negative reinforcement have many similarities.

The primary resemblance is their main goal, which is to increase the likelihood of the desired behavior.

Both of these concepts are related to operant conditioning. Similar elements also influence the success rate of these two types of reinforcement.

The consistency, frequency, and immediate response to the behavior all play a role in reinforcing the reinforcements.

Similar to the concept of punishment, another resemblance between these two concepts is their ineffectiveness.

Operant conditioning is an excellent associative learning process that people all around the world use in their unique ways, based on their local beliefs and social norms.

However, the effectiveness of these reinforcement techniques may differ from one person to another.

8 Examples of Positive Reinforcement

  1. A company develops a rewards program to increase its customers’ loyalty. Customers can earn points for purchases made through the reward program. They can then either cash out or exchange their points to purchase other products. Motivated by the reward points, this enables the company to establish a long-term relationship with their customers.
  2. Have you ever noticed that dentists have sweets or balloons in their offices? This is because some children are terrified of visiting dentists. When given a sweet or balloon, the children may feel motivated to return to the dentist again. The positive reinforcement also reduces their fear of returning to the dentist for their next appointment.
  3. Positive reinforcement can be as easy as delivering outstanding customer service to customers. Investing the time to listen carefully and focus on the customers’ difficulties is a positive stimulus. Providing excellent customer service will encourage the existing customers to buy more products from the same brand in the future.
  4. Parents frequently utilize positive reinforcement to foster positive behavior in children. They may, for example, praise or reward their children for doing house chores. The same method is frequently used in schools to motivate children to behave or pay attention in class.
  5. Positive reinforcement is commonly used in the workplace to motivate employees. Incentives and bonuses are frequently given to encourage and motivate employees to hit their targets. This technique is an effective strategy to raise employee morale and encourage them to give their best in their role.
  6. Positive reinforcement in the form of verbal encouragement is another example of how certain behaviors can be strengthened. For example, when a parent praises their kid for finishing schoolwork, they are motivated to keep studying hard.
  7. Young children tend to struggle to acclimate to a school environment in their first few days of kindergarten. During this time, parents and teachers do everything they can to encourage them to adapt to their new surroundings. When a child realizes that they will be rewarded for good behavior in class, they will be more eager to go to school.
  8. Dog trainers frequently use positive reinforcement to train their dogs. This technique can be accomplished by giving the dog their favorite food or simply patting it. One of the most effective strategies to train dogs to perform tricks is to use positive reinforcement.

8 Examples of Negative Reinforcement

  1. Before leaving for work, Kent has a habit of double-checking that he has everything he needs for his project presentation. This behavior is intended to avoid a delay in the project’s progress and flopping his presentation.
  2. Let’s say you have a pet dog who likes biting pillows. To prevent your pet dog from tearing apart your cushions, you have no choice but to store all of your cushions out of their sight. You may also give your pet dog a chew toy to keep it occupied.
  3. You must have heard a loud buzzing sound whenever you did not wear a seatbelt in the driver or passenger seat. To stop the buzzing noise, you have no other choice but to buckle up your seatbelt.
  4. A young girl begs her brother to buy her an ice cream. Her brother eventually gets tired of her constant pleading and buys ice cream for her. In this scenario, the young girl’s annoying behavior ends when she receives the desired ice cream.
  5. Joanne is notorious for being late to work. As a result, her boss will reprimand her whenever she is late. To avoid being late to work, Joanne started going to bed early in the evening and getting up earlier.
  6. As a manager, William is constantly reminding his employees of their monthly goals. This behavior becomes second nature to him, and he does it consciously or unconsciously. To avoid William’s repeated reminders, his employees always give their best effort to meet their monthly targets.
  7. Hayley’s boss implements a new policy that requires employees to work extra hours if their tasks aren’t finished on time. Because most employees would instead not work overtime, they will be more focused and productive during working hours to fulfil their tasks.
  8. A teacher has a policy of not assigning homework to her students if they pay attention in class. As a result, her students are more likely to pay attention in class and are relieved of the need to do homework at home.

Frequently Asked Questions About Positive vs Negative Reinforcement

What is a Positive and Negative Reinforcement Chart?

Positive Reinforcement Negative Reinforcement
Definition A subject is given a positive reinforcer in exchange for repeating the desired behavior. A subject displays the desired behavior to avoid the aversive stimulus.
Stimuli Adding a stimulus. Remove a stimulus.
Consequences The stimulus has positive consequences. The stimulus has negative consequences.
Reinforcement Reward Penalty
Effect Strengthen or maintain a desired target behavior. Avoid or escape the aversive stimulus.

What is Negative Reinforcement for Dogs?

Negative reinforcement is when something is taken away from the dog. The goal is to increase or maintain the frequency of the desired target behavior in the dog.

What is Positive Reinforcement for Dogs?

Positive reinforcement is when a reward or positive stimulus is given to the dog for exhibiting the desired target behavior.

Overall Conclusion

Reinforcement is where an outcome reinforces the desired target behavior. The goal is to encourage the desired behavior to occur again in the future.

Positive reinforcement entails offering a positive reinforcer to encourage the subjects to behave in the desired behavior.

Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, involves reducing or eliminating a negative reinforcer to increase the frequency of the desired behavior.

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