Understanding Negative Reinforcement

Medically reviewed by Timothy J. Legg, PhD, PsyD, CRNP, ACRN, CPH on August 31, 2017Written by Ashley Marcin on August 31, 2017

What is negative reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is a method that can be used to help teach specific behaviors. With negative reinforcement, something uncomfortable or otherwise unpleasant is taken away in response to a stimulus. Over time, the target behavior should increase with the expectation that the unpleasant thing will be taken away.

Read on to learn more about this type of learning.

How does it work?

The relationship between behavior and consequences is part of a type of learning called operant conditioning. It dates back to the late 1930s.

For negative reinforcement to work, whatever is taken away must be taken away immediately after the behavior in question. The end result is to get whatever behavior is happening to continue and even increase.

Examples

A person hears a loud alarm. They push the STOP button on the alarm to make the noise stop. Now whenever the alarm goes off, they push the STOP button as quickly as they can.

  • Before behavior: Loud alarm
  • Behavior: Person turns alarm off
  • After behavior: No more annoying sound
  • Future behavior: Person pushes STOP every morning to quiet alarm

Parents complain to their child when the child doesn’t clean their room. The child starts cleaning their room to make the complaining stop. Now the child cleans their room more regularly to avoid the complaining.

  • Before behavior: Complaining parents
  • Behavior: Child cleans room
  • After behavior: No more complaining
  • Future behavior: Child keeps room clean

Negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is when you give something to a person in response to a certain behavior. It can include anything from allowances to special activities to verbal praise. The idea is that giving that thing will increase the likelihood that the behavior will continue.

For example, a child is told that they’ll earn $5.00 for each A on their report card. The child starts getting good grades. The positive reinforcement here is the $5.00 for each A. The behavior achieved is the child earning good grades.

With both positive and negative reinforcement, the goal is to increase the behavior. The difference is that with negative reinforcement, the behavior results in taking something unpleasant away. With positive reinforcement, the behavior results in earning or attaining something desirable.

Negative reinforcement vs. punishment

Many people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. The key area where these two methods differ is in the end result. With reinforcement, adding or taking away something is meant to increase the behavior. With punishment, adding or taking away something is meant to decrease or weaken the behavior.

You may already be familiar with specific examples of punishments. They include things like time-outs, groundings, or loss of privileges. Just like with reinforcement, though, punishment can be broken down into positive punishment and negative punishment.

  • With positive punishment, you add something unpleasant in response to a behavior. For example, a child chews gum in class, which is against the rules. The punishment is the teacher disciplining them in front of the class. The child stops chewing gum in glass.
  • With negative punishment, you take away a positive reinforcement in response to a behavior. For example, an older sister picks on her younger brother. The punishment is the parent taking away her favorite toy. The girl stops picking on her brother as a result.

So, should you use negative reinforcement or punishment? Think back to your goal. If it’s to increase a certain behavior, negative reinforcement is the better approach. If it’s to decrease a behavior, punishment may be the better route.

Is negative reinforcement bad?

While the word “negative” may throw you, using this method for behavior change isn’t necessarily bad. In negative reinforcement, the word “negative” is referring more to the act of taking something away, like a minus sign in a mathematical equation.

Usually the thing that’s removed in response to the behavior is something the person finds unpleasant or uncomfortable. The removal often results in a favorable outcome for the person.

Efficacy

Negative reinforcement can be an effective tool when used correctly. Using negative reinforcement may not always get the intended results, however. This type of behavior conditioning is simply meant to increase a behavior. As a result, it can work both ways, reinforcing either favorable or unfavorable behaviors.

Examples of negative reinforcement for unfavorable behaviors

A child screams whenever they’re offered macaroni and cheese at a meal. When they scream, their parents immediately take the food away. Each time macaroni and cheese is offered, the child’s tantrums increase and the parents give in.

  • Before behavior: Macaroni and cheese on child’s plate
  • Behavior: Child screams
  • After behavior: Parents take food away
  • Future behavior: Child will scream whenever offered macaroni and cheese

A child doesn’t like wearing a certain shirt their mother purchased for them. The child noticed in the past that their mother doesn’t make them wear damaged clothing, so the child cuts the shirt with scissors. When the mother discovers this, she takes the shirt away.

  • Before behavior: Horrible shirt
  • Behavior: Child damages clothing
  • After behavior: Mother takes shirt away
  • Future behavior: Child will damage clothing they don’t want to wear

Negative reinforcement in the classroom

Negative reinforcement might work in a classroom setting.

Example of negative reinforcement in the classroom

A student with autism is learning to communicate using pictures. The student is working with the “no” symbol of a circle with a line through it, also known as the PECS “no” picture. The teacher helps the student learn to show the “no” picture when they’re being offered something they don’t like. Now when the child is presented with something they don’t want, they display the “no” picture.

  • Before behavior: Child given something they don’t want
  • Behavior: Child shows “no” picture
  • After behavior: Undesired item is taken away
  • Future behavior: Child shows “no” picture when they want something taken away

In this example, the negative reinforcement is beneficial to the child. That said, positive reinforcement is typically the better approach to behavior in a classroom setting. This might include things like motivating children with the use of small prizes, social activities, and special privileges for increasing positive behaviors.

Positive reinforcement in the classroom

To create a positive reinforcement method in the classroom:

  • Find out what motivates your students. You may consider writing up a survey to have them fill out.
  • Focus on a certain behavior you want to change. For example, maybe you want students to be better about turning in assignments.
  • Clearly define the desired behavior to your students. For example, let your students know that you want them to turn in assignments on time. Be as specific as possible when defining your expectations.
  • Present the reinforcement immediately upon seeing the desired behavior. For example, if the class has turned in all assignments on time, immediately give them praise or other motivators, like special privileges.

Not all children respond the same way to reinforcement. You may need to cater your approach to accommodate for the differences.

Takeaway

There are a variety of ways to encourage and discourage behaviors. Negative reinforcement can be a useful tool if you’re looking to increase a certain behavior. Punishment, on the other hand, is meant to decrease behaviors. The word “negative” simply refers to taking something away and does not mean that this method is bad and not worth exploring.

Regardless of what discipline method you choose, consistency and the timing of the consequence are the most important aspects.

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