A Guide to Negative Reinforcement
There are four types of operant conditioning identified by B.F. Skinner: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Both types of reinforcement have the goal of increasing the desired behavior, while both types of punishment aim to diminish certain behaviors.
In this article, we will focus on negative reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement has the same goal as positive reinforcement, which is to increase a specific behavior. Whereas positive reinforcements use rewards and tokens to encourage the repetition of a behavior, negative reinforcement has to do with the removal of unpleasant stimuli.
A young boy always leaves his dirty clothes on the floor as soon as he changes out of them after coming home from school. Parents nag their child to put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket immediately after changing clothes. Every time the child forgets to put his clothes away, he gets nagged. To avoid getting nagged again, the child will put his dirty clothes in the laundry basket. Time will come when this will become a habit. The child will no longer have to be nagged just so he can remember to put his dirty clothes away.
In this example, the unpleasant stimuli is the parents’ nagging, while the desired behavior is putting dirty clothes in the laundry basket.
Negative reinforcement is not punishment
People often get these two mixed up, but it’s understandable because of the connotation of the words “negative” and “punishment.”
When talking about “negative” and “positive” in the context of reinforcement and punishment, negative refers to taking something away while positive refers to adding something (a reward, a token, etc.).
Negative reinforcement can be an effective way to increase or encourage behaviors. Consistency and timing of applying the reinforcement are key to seeing the repetition or increase of a behavior. Deliver negative reinforcement as soon as you observe the child perform the behavior you want to increase. Most people gravitate toward positive reinforcement because it explicitly rewards the child for good behavior; however, the proper use of negative reinforcement can be just as effective. It is up to you, the adult, to determine which one to use.