What is Negative Reinforcement and How Does it Work?


B.F. Skinner, an American phycologist who studied behaviorism, first introduced the term negative reinforcement in his Operant Conditioning theory. Skinner found that when using negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing, or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus (Skinner, 1963, Operant Behavior).

To support this theory, Skinner conducted experiments on negative reinforcement by placing a rat in a Skinner Box and subjecting it to a sequence of mild electrical shocks. The rat moved around the box and then bumped into the lever that would turn off the electrical current. The consequence of the action (not being shocked) reinforced the behavior (flipping the lever switch).

Skinner found that the rats learned to avoid the electrical shock by flipping a lever before the current ever started. They learned that when a light came on, the electric current would start, so they learned to press the lever immediately.

Negative reinforcement includes one of the following in response to the behavior:

  • Something is removed
  • Something is terminated
  • Something is reduced
  • Something is postponed

The goal is that through the removal, termination, reduction, or postponement, the aversive event will not occur.

Negative Reinforcement Examples

As humans, we use negative reinforcement every day, and may not realize it.  See the following examples:

You go to the beach on a hot, sunny day. The fear of sunburn causes you to slather on sunscreen beforehand. Your fear of getting sunburnt is the aversive stimulus. The positive outcome is no sunburn.

Your kids start doing their chores without being asked (positive outcome) to avoid you nagging them to do chores (aversive stimulus.)

You discover a new route to work that takes less time and features less traffic than your normal route (aversive stimulus). You start driving this route to save time (positive outcome).

A teacher eliminates homework if his students work hard and accomplish their tasks in class. In turn, the students work harder and are more productive (positive outcome), so they won’t have to do homework (aversive stimulus).

What Negative Reinforcement is Not

To understand what negative reinforcement is, let’s look at what it is not.

  • Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment.  
  • Negative reinforcement is not the opposite of positive reinforcement.
  • Negative reinforcement does not reinforce negative behavior.

First of all, negative reinforcement and punishment are not the same things. Negative reinforcement involves the removal of something negative to strengthen a behavior. On the other hand, punishment involves either imposing something undesirable or taking away a positive stimulus to weaken or eliminate a behavior.

For example, a child lies about doing his chores, so his parents give him extra chores. Extra chores are an undesirable consequence to eliminate the behavior of lying.

Another example: a teacher takes away a student’s recess because she was talking too much in class. Here the teacher takes away something positive (recess) to eliminate the student from talking too much in class.

Negative reinforcement is not the opposite of positive reinforcement.

Sometimes negative and positive reinforcement are mistaken for opposites. However, they are not; both negative and positive reinforcement share the same end result: to increase a behavior.

Positive reinforcement focuses on giving a favorable stimulus to receive the desired response. For example, if your child completes all his homework, he can play on his iPad. The child is positively reinforced with the use of the iPad; therefore, he completes his homework.

Positive reinforcement refers to the delivery of something positive, whereas negative reinforcement refers to the removal or reduction of something negative. While they are different processes, they both have the same effect of reinforcing certain behaviors.

Negative reinforcement does not reinforce negative behavior.

Negative reinforcement for behavioral reinforcement is not negative at all. The term “negative” in this sense simply means “to take something away.”

Likewise, negative reinforcement does not reinforce negative behavior. It reinforces the behavior that removes the negative stimulus. Removing this stimulus creates a positive outcome.

When to Use Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is most effective in strengthening a desired behavior and should be used immediately following a behavior. If too much time lapses between the behavior and reinforcer, the response may not be effective.

Negative reinforcement can be applied anywhere:

  • Self
  • Child development/Parenting
  • Classroom setting
  • Work environment
  • Family/Friend relationships
  • Training pets

Negative reinforcement can be used in any situation where behavior change needs to occur. You can use it on yourself (you do every day without even realizing it). For example, when you take a shorter route to work to avoid traffic, or you apply sunscreen to avoid sunburn.

It is also effective in a classroom setting, although some researchers say positive reinforcement should be emphasized, and negative reinforcement should be used carefully.

While effective, negative reinforcement is best for immediate behavioral changes. Positive reinforcement is more applicable for long-term sustained behavioral changes.

About Adam Nesenoff

Adam Nesenoff has been working in recovery for over ten years.

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