What Is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is the psychological phenomena where a behavior increases because a negative stimulus or aversive event is prevented from occurring or removed. Negative reinforcement is an aspect of operating conditioning, as defined by psychologist B. F. Skinner.

Operant conditioning is a process where a specific behavior is modified, either increased or decreased, by punishment or reinforcement. Let’s examine the role of negative reinforcement in operant conditioning in greater detail.

Operant Conditioning

An example of an operant conditioning chamber, also known as a “Skinner Box”. Photo: By Andreas1 – Adapted from Image:Boite skinner.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5709267

Operant conditioning is a system or method of learning that occurs through either punishment or reward. Operant conditioning is where a person creates an association between a consequence (stimuli) and a certain behavior. Operant conditioning is distinct from classical conditioning, which is where two stimuli are linked together through a constant association that creates a new behavior. Classical conditioning was the dominant theory of learning under behaviorist psychology in the early 20th century. The psychologist B. F. Skinner believed that the model of classical conditioning was too simple to account for all of people’s complex behavior, creating a model known as operant conditioning which was intended to examine both the causes and consequences of an action.

Much of Skinner’s work was based on the previous research of Thorndike’s Law of Effect. The Law of Effect proposed that pleasant consequences following a behavior are likely to lead to repeated behavior, while unpleasant consequences following a behavior are likely to make the behavior less likely to be repeated.

Skinner coined the phrase “Reinforcement” which refers to the strengthening of a behavior. Behavior that is reinforced is likely to be strengthened while behavior that goes unreinforced is usually extinguished or dies out. Skinner used devices called “Skinner boxes” to study the theory of operant conditioning and the development of behavior. The Skinner Box was a device that allowed Skinner to study the behavior of animals like pigeons and mice, where the animal would be provided some sort of stimulus (like flashing lights) followed by a reward (food).

Through his work with Skinner boxes, Skinner defined three different response types that can accompany a behavior: Neutral operants, reinforcers, and punishers. Reinforcers are responses that come from the surrounding environment and increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. Punishers have the opposite effect of reinforcers, being a response from the environment that decreases the probability a given behavior will be repeated. Finally, neutral operants are those responses that neither decrease nor increase the chance that a behavior will be repeated.

Breakdown of operant conditioning and associated terms. Photo: Curtis Neveu via Wikimedia Commons, CC 3.0

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement works by strengthening the associations between a consequence and an action or behavior. If the consequence for an action is one that the individual finds rewarding, they are more likely to repeat in in the future. Skinner tested this by placing a hungry rat inside a Skinner box, along with a lever that dispensed food. When the rat accidentally knocked into the lever, a food pellet would drop out. The rat quickly made the association between the lever and the food (a positive consequence) and would soon rush straight for the lever when placed inside the Skinner box.

Negative Reinforcement

Medicine might be an example of a negative reinforcer. If the use of the medicine causes unpleasant symptoms to abate or cease, the person is more likely to keep using the medicine. Photo: qimono via Pixabay, CC0

Negative reinforcement strengthens a behavior by removing a negative or unpleasant reinforcer.  In contrast to positive reinforcement, the removal of the negative reinforcement is rewarding to the individual engaging in the behavior. The negative reinforcement strengthens the behavior because it removes the unpleasant experience. Skinner experimented with negative reinforcement by placing a rat in a Skinner box and subjecting the rat to a series of mild electrical shocks. As the rat moved about the box it would bump into the lever and in doing so would turn off the electrical current. The rat quickly made the association between the behavior and the removal of the shocks and upon being placed in the box would then run straight to the lever. The consequence of the action (not being shocked) reinforced the behavior and made sure the rat would repeat the behavior again and again.

Through experimentation, Skinner even found that the rats would learn to preempt the shock by flipping a lever before the current started. The rats learned that when a light came on it meant the electric current would turn on soon, and they learned that pressing the lever when the light came on meant the current wouldn’t turn on.

Punishment

Punishment is defined by behaviorists as the conceptual opposite of reinforcement, a stimulus designed to eliminate or weaken a behavior instead of increasing the behavior. The aversive stimuli come after the event or behavior that it is intended to decrease. Punishments function by using an unpleasant or aversive stimulus, or by removing a positive stimulus (taking away privileges as a punishment).

It’s not always easy to distinguish between punishment and negative reinforcement, but the primary difference is that while punishment is intended to make an undesirable behavior stop negative reinforcement tries to make the behavior more likely through the removal of something.

As behaviorists note, punishment as a solution to misbehavior has its problems. Punishment doesn’t necessarily guide an individual towards desired behavior since it only discourages one behavior and doesn’t reinforce another behavior. Punishment can also often fail to genuinely prevent problematic behavior as the behavior often simply returns when the punishment is no longer present.

Summing Up The Differences

To sum up the differences between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement:

Positive reinforcement works through strengthening associations between an action/behavior and a consequence. If the action is associated with a consequence that the individuals interpret as rewarding, the individual will be more likely to repeat the action/behavior in the future.

Negative reinforcement strengthens a behavior through the removal of unpleasant or negative stimuli. When the negative reinforcer is removed it is usually seen as rewarding to the individual who engages in the action/behavior and increases the likelihood the action/behavior will happen again in the future.

Both negative and positive reinforcement are examples of operant conditioning, a system or method of learning that occurs through either punishment or reward, where an individual creates an association between a consequence and a certain behavior.

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