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What is positive or negative reinforcement in Psychology?

What is positive or negative reinforcement in Psychology?

May 2, 2024

B. F. Skinner, one of the key theorists of behaviorist orientation, defined reinforcement as a type of learning based on the association of a behavior with the consequences derived from it, which increase or decrease the probability that it will be executed again. When they are negative we talk about punishment, and when they are positive reinforcement.

Within the learning by reinforcement we distinguish two types of consequence: positive and negative reinforcement . While positive reinforcement occurs when the behavior involves obtaining a prize, the negative reinforcement consists in the avoidance or withdrawal of an aversive stimulus. Let's see the main characteristics of both procedures.


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Reinforcement and operant conditioning

The concepts "positive reinforcement" and "negative reinforcement" are framed in the paradigm of instrumental or operant conditioning . Unlike classical or Pavlovian conditioning, in which the association between a stimulus and a response is learned, in the instrumental the subject associates the performance of a behavior with certain consequences.

The operant conditioning arose from the work of the behaviorists Edward Thorndike, who studied the process by which cats managed to escape from "problem boxes", and Burrhus F. Skinner, who systematically described the characteristics of this learning procedure and what applied to diverse fields, especially education.


Skinner distinguished three types of instrumental learning : that of punishment, which consists in the appearance of an aversive stimulus after the execution of the behavior, that of omission, in which the response is associated with the absence of reward, and that of reinforcement, in which the behavior is rewarded. Within this procedure we find positive and negative reinforcement.

In the framework of operant conditioning the consequences of the behavior can be positive or negative for the recipient; however, this differentiation is not the one that separates positive reinforcement from negative, but rather when the behavior has appetitive consequences we talk about reinforcement , and of punishment when they are aversive.

When we refer to reinforcement or punishment, the terms "positive" and "negative" do not refer to the pleasantness of the consequence, but rather to the occurrence or disappearance of a given stimulus : in positive reinforcement it is learned that a reward will be obtained if something is done, and in the negative that an unpleasant stimulus will be avoided or eliminated.


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What is positive reinforcement?

In the learning by positive reinforcement the accomplishment of a behavior is associated with the obtaining of a pleasant consequence. This does not have to be an object, not even tangible ; food, substances, a smile, a verbal message or the appearance of a pleasant emotion are likely to be understood as positive reinforcers in many contexts.

A father who congratulates his young daughter every time he uses the toilet correctly strengthens a learning by positive reinforcement; The same happens when a company gives economic bonuses to its most productive workers, and even when we get a bag of chips after putting a coin in a vending machine.

The concept "positive reinforcement" refers to the award that follows the behavior , whereas positive reinforcement is the procedure by which the subject who learns makes the association. However, the terms "reinforcement" and "reinforcement" are often used interchangeably, probably because there is no such distinction in English.

From a technical point of view we can say that in positive reinforcement there is a positive contingency between a concrete response and an appetitive stimulus. The awareness of this contingency motivates the subject to execute the behavior in order to obtain the reward (or reinforcement).

Defining the negative reinforcement

Unlike what happens in the positive, in the negative reinforcement the instrumental response entails the disappearance of an aversive stimulus , that is, an object or situation that motivates the subject to escape or to try not to come into contact with it.

In behavioral terms, reinforcement in this procedure is the disappearance or non-appearance of aversive stimulation. As we have previously stated, the word "negative" refers to the fact that the reward does not consist in obtaining a stimulus but in its absence.

This type of learning is divided in turn into two procedures: escape training and avoidance training. In the negative reinforcement of avoidance the behavior prevents the appearance of the aversive stimulus; For example, when an agoraphobic person avoids using public transport to avoid the anxiety that is supposed to be being negatively reinforced.

In contrast, escape consists of the disappearance of an aversive stimulus that is present before the subject executes the behavior. Some examples of negative exhaust reinforcement they are that an alarm clock stops at the press of a button, that a mother buys her child what she asks to stop crying or that consuming an analgesic relieves pain.


Operant conditioning: Positive-and-negative reinforcement and punishment | MCAT | Khan Academy (May 2024).


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