Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement

In general, I think there are a lot of misconceptions about what negative reinforcement is. Before I started studying behavior, I just figured negative reinforcement was giving negative consequences when a child did something inappropriate. Well, I was wrong.

I’m just going to go over some definitions to clear things up a bit, and then I’ll post another day about examples of different types of reinforcement.

What is reinforcement? Something is being reinforced when the behavior increases. For example if we want a child to put away his backpack every day after school, we want to reinforce that behavior so that the probability of it happening will increase.

So the result of reinforcement is the same (an increase or maintenance in behavior) whether it’s positive or negative. Let’s look at what positive and negative are referring to.

Positive (+) = adding something
Negative (-) = taking something away

Positive Reinforcement = adding something to increase or maintain the rate of the behavior
Negative Reinforcement = taking something away to increase or maintain the rate of the behavior

Example: A child is asked to finish his dinner. The positive reinforcement is that he can go play as soon as he’s done (being able to play is added). The negative reinforcement is that the parent nagging the child to finish eating will stop (the nagging is taken away).

Sometimes it can be difficult to discriminate between these two types of reinforcement, and in some cases it may not really matter, but overall I feel like it’s important to have a brief idea of the differences when having discussions about behavior, or reading literature about it. Hope this is helpful.

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