There are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative.
You may have had moments where one of these forms of reinforcement worked well for you, while another stirred up feelings of shame or resentment.
Have you ever rewarded a child with candy for good behavior? That is an example of positive reinforcement.
Different reinforcement methods will lead to different experiences and behavior.
“If you want a different result you have to choose a different behaviour.” – Dr. Phil
In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a method of increasing the likelihood of a given behavior.
This article explores these two branches of operant conditioning, leaving readers at the end to decide for themselves, which guides works best for them.
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Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is an additional stimulus that encourages certain behavior. This is a type of operant conditioning (Schultz, 2015).
For example, parents use positive reinforcement when they a child for completing their chores with a piece of candy. The child starts associating chores with candy, and as a result, they complete their chores more reliably and enthusiastically in the hopes of earning more candy.
On the other hand, negative reinforcement is misunderstood sometimes mean punishment. However, in this case, the word “negative” is not referring to something bad but rather, to the removal of a stimulus. With negative reinforcement, the stimulus is unpleasant, thereby encouraging the behavior by its absence (Skinner, 1938).
An example of negative reinforcement is an overprotective parent, who perhaps without realizing it, pays less attention to their teenager’s activities or whereabouts when they receive good grades. The teenager begins to associate academic success with the parent’s looser grip and continues to study hard so as to enjoy their freedom.
In this way, the lack of extra supervision negatively reinforces the teenager’s behavior.
Skinner’s Operant Conditioning: Different Reinforcement Schedules
B.F. Skinner, one of the most influential behavioral psychologists, became famous through his reinforcement experiments on rats. In the famous “Skinner Box,” rats could push a lever that distributed food, or with his work with pigeons, the birds had a food-dispensing dish (Krebs, 1983).
Depending on the nature of his experiment, the reinforcements varied for these studies using rats and pigeons.
One of Skinner’s leading discoveries is that the schedule of reinforcement has a profound impact on the success of the reinforcement in eliciting the desired behavior.
Overall, there are two types of scheduling reinforcement: continuously or partially. Within partial reinforcement, there are four sub-categories of how the reinforcement schedule can occur (McSweeney, Murphy .
On this schedule, reinforcement occurs each time the desired behavior occurs. Typically, this is a good schedule to start with because it creates a strong association between the desired behavior and the reward (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). For example, if training a dog to sit, then the trainer must give the dog the treat (or reward) every time the dog responds to the order to “sit.”
This generally involves the most amount of effort and resources, and it is most vulnerable to extinction or the cessation of the learned behavior).
With the same example of the dog, if the trainer were to ask the dog to sit, yet stop offering a reward for the behavior, the dog may lose interest in completing this order.
Partial reinforcement involves having less frequent and consistent reinforcement. Skinner used four different partial reinforcement method (Malott & Trojan-Suarez, 2004).
1. Fixed Ratio Reinforcement: Based on Repetitions of the Desired Behavior
Fixed Ratio Reinforcement is offered when behavior is performed a certain number of times. An example this would be rewarding yourself with a chocolate bar after every fifth workout you do or allowing yourself to splurge on a bigger purchase if you reach your financial income goal every six months.
2. Fixed Interval Reinforcement: Based on Time Intervals
This is when reinforcement occurs at fixed time intervals, however only if the desired behavior is done at least once during the interval. An example of this is hourly compensation, regardless of the amount of work completed. Or when employees receive a break every two hours, regardless of how much work is completed.
3. Variable Ratio Reinforcement: Based on Variability on Average
This reinforcement works on averages. Such as after the fifth time, then after the fifteenth time, for an average of about 10 times). Interestingly, variable ratio reinforcement generally produces the desired behavior which is most resistant to extinction (Ferster & Skinner, 1957).
An example of this type of is a jackpot at a slot machine may occur at a fixed probability, but the number of lever pulls required will vary each time. While the number of times for the pulled lever will vary, the average amount the machine rewards people remains the same.
4. Variable Interval Reinforcement: Based on Random Intervals
Variable Ratio Reinforcement occurs after random amounts of time (but within a specific average), provided the desired behavior has happened at least once during that time.
An example of this is a fisherman who gets may get a bite, on average, every hour, but the individual bites will occur at different times. This is the most unpredictable of the four types. Another example is when a boss reviews your work, either daily with casual drop-ins by your work area, or when they visit a site unexpectedly.
How to Get Your Desired Behaviour Using Operant Conditioning
When introducing a new behavior, it may be best to start off with a continuous schedule, the gradually over time shifting into one of the partial reinforcement schedules.
If we return to the dog-training example, imagine a dog who receives a treat every time they respond to the order, “Sit.” Over time, the trainer could start offering treats every other time the dog sits, and eventually, every few times. This way, the dog continues to respond to the word “sit,” because they are never sure when the action will result in a treat.
The advantage of partial schedules of reinforcement is that they can prevent the reward from losing value too quickly. When the reinforcer is presented too often and too easily, it may lose its reinforcing power (Hochman & Erev, 2013).
It is a good idea to gradually wean off the reinforcer until, ideally, the desired behavior is performed without it.
Advice on How to Make Operant Conditioning Work For You
If you decide to use positive reinforcement in your life, with your kids, with your pets, or at work, there are a few key points you should remember:
- The value of the reward is subjective. You should pick a reward that you know is desirable.
- The value of the reward can lessen with time, so do not give it too freely. You may want to consider a backup reward.
- You should always plan ahead. Work towards weaning off of the reward. Remember, the goal is to eventually perform the desired behavior without needing a reward.
- Never underestimate the value of praise. In many instances, it can trump any tangible reward.
What are ways you may incorporate operant conditioning in your life, or upon reflection, ways it has been used with you? We would love to hear about it in our comments section.
The Power of Reward
If you are interested in seeing the power of reinforcement on motivation, check out this TEDtalk by Dan Ariely on what makes us feel good about our work:
What do you think? Are we in control of our own decisions or not? Let us know in our comments section below.
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- Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied behaviour analysis. Pearson Education.
- Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Hochman, G., & Erev, I. (2013). The partial-reinforcement extinction effect and the contingent-sampling hypothesis. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 20(6), 1336-1342.
- Krebs, J. R. (1983). Animal behaviour: From Skinner box to the field. Nature, 304(5922), 117-117.
- Malott, R. & Trojan-Suarez, E. (2004). Principles of behaviour. Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Schultz, W. (2015). Neuronal reward and decision signals: From theories to data. Physiological Reviews, 95(3), 853-951.
- Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. Appleton-Century-Crofts.