NAVIGATION

Negative Reinforcement – A Commonly Misunderstood Concept

Categories: ASD and DD, Child-focused


Most people have probably heard of the principle of “reinforcement.” Anyone who has taken an introductory psychology class, read a self-help book, or watched television is likely to have encountered the term. Indeed, the concept of reinforcement is regularly referenced on popular television talk shows. As the general public’s exposure to this concept increases, it is more likely that it will be misrepresented or misunderstood.

The general concept of reinforcement is fairly easy to understand. Reinforcement occurs when an event or action (also referred to as a “consequence”) following a behavior increases the chances of that behavior occurring in the future. The confusion, however, typically occurs with the introduction of the specific terms “positive” and “negative” – especially the latter.

It is helpful to remember that both positive and negative reinforcement strengthen behavior. Both make a behavior more likely to occur again in the future. They differ, however, in how they strengthen behavior.

Positive reinforcement occurs when, following a specific behavior, a stimulus is added to the environment and, as a result, that particular behavior is more likely to occur again in the future. Because the stimuli (such as verbal praise, stickers, or a paycheck, for example) are desirable, they reinforce the behavior they follow. They are therefore labeled positive reinforcers.

Negative reinforcement occurs when, following a specific behavior, a stimulus is removed from the environment. As a result, that particular behavior is more likely to occur again in the future. Because the stimuli (such as an unpleasant smell, repeated nagging, or an annoying noise) are undesirable, they reinforce the behavior that leads to their removal. These are labeled negative reinforcers.

A good example of negative reinforcement usually helps people more fully understand the concept. Alleviating a painful headache, for example, reinforces the behavior of finding and taking an effective painkiller. Most headache sufferers will continue to repeat this behavior (taking a painkiller) as long as it leads to relief. Most people will eventually stop taking an ineffective medication.

The concept of negative reinforcement is often misunderstood because people believe it is the opposite of positive reinforcement and confuse it with punishment. People may assume that the term “negative” is associated with some undesirable behavior. Or, they link the terms “positive” and “negative” to some type of judgment about behavior. That is, positive reinforcement must refer to the promotion of positive behavior or that negative reinforcement must reflect the unintended reinforcement of negative or socially unacceptable behavior.

These mistakes are unfortunate because reinforcement has nothing to do with whether or not a behavior is viewed as appropriate. If behavior, whether perceived as “good” or “bad,” continues to occur, it is being reinforced in some way. It is good to remember that reinforcers are defined by their effect on behavior, and that a negative reinforcer can promote a positive behavior.

By Patrick F. Heick, Ph.D., BCBA-D