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What's the Deal With Reinforcement and Punishment?

Reinforcement, punishment, positive reinforcement, positive punishment? What does this all mean? Then there’s a negative reinforcement and negative punishment? It can be confusing, but only because the traditional definitions of these words don’t exactly apply in behavior analysis. In the most general terms, reinforcement is something that increases the probability a behavior occurring again, and punishment is something that decreases a behavior. The term positive refers to adding a stimulus here, and negative refers to removing a stimulus.

There are both positive and negative forms of reinforcement and punishment. Positive reinforcement is when a stimulus is added to the environment which leads to the behavior that occurred before it increasing in the future. Negative reinforcement is when a stimulus is removed from the environment which results in a behavior increasing. Negative reinforcement, despite the word “negative” in it, is actually a good thing for the person, because it involves removing an aversive situation. Let’s look at an example.

Imagine James is playing with his toys and his sister, Amelia comes in loudly singing “Let it Go”. James asks her in a neutral and calm voice to please stop singing, and she does. James was just negatively reinforced because the aversive, loud singing was removed after he emitted his response (asking her to stop). In the future, he will be more likely to ask in the same calm and neutral way to get her to stop singing loudly because of that negative reinforcement, and likely will also generalize that same response to asking his friends to stop doing something that he isn’t comfortable with.

If negative reinforcement increases a behavior, what is punishment? Punishment is when a stimulus change results in a behavior decreasing. Keeping in mind the fact that positive means adding something and negative means taking away, positive punishment is when a stimulus is added to the environment to decrease the future frequency of the behavior. Negative punishment is when something is removed from the environment to decrease the future frequency of the behavior. Positive punishment in the behavior analytic terms typically refers to adding something aversive, such as a reprimand.

Now think of it from his little sister Amelia’s point of view. Amelia was enjoying singing loudly and she didn’t mind who heard her. When James asked her to stop singing so loudly, she stopped, and now her loud singing behavior is less likely to occur James is around. Amelia received positive punishment (in the form of a gentle request) to stop singing loudly, and it decreased that behavior.

While the motivating operations play a role in these behaviors in the moment as well, the consequences, both reinforcing or punishing, that are applied to the behavior maintain the future frequency. When we look at the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences, we can determine why a behavior is occurring, and how to manipulate the antecedents or consequences to change that behavior. Of course, always remain ethical in any sort of environmental manipulation and reach out to a more experienced practitioner if you are unsure about something.

Can you think of some situations that you could use negative and positive reinforcement and punishment?


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