At first glance, the term “negative reinforcement” might sound a little uncomfortable, or it could sound contradictory. Is there such a thing as negative reinforcement or positive punishment?
In the world of behaviorism, yes. Both of those terms exist. You might be surprised to learn that negative reinforcement is actually a way to encourage a behavior to happen again!
What is Negative Reinforcement?
Negative Reinforcement is when a stimulus is removed to increase a certain behavior. For example, if a young adult gets up early in the morning to avoid being last in the bathroom, they have increased a certain behavior to avoid the stimulus of waiting on the bathroom.
Both punishments and reinforcements could be broken down into two categories: positive or negative. This doesn’t signify the outcome of the reinforcement; rather, “positive” or “negative” refers to whether a stimulus was added or removed as a response to a behavior. In the case of negative reinforcement, a stimulus is removed. This stimulus was probably burdensome or cumbersome, so removing the stimulus often feels like a relief.
Back in the early 1900s, psychologists were experimenting with different ways to encourage or restrict certain behaviors. The most notable psychologists of the time were Ivan Pavlov and BF Skinner.
Ivan Pavlov was known for his experiments with dogs. He developed experiments around classical conditioning, or a type of conditioning that led to involuntary behaviors. The dogs in his experiments had no control over their drooling, but were conditioning to drool at the sound of a bell. BF Skinner, who came around a few decades later, developed experiments around operant conditioning. He wanted to look at how people or animals could be encouraged (or discouraged) to perform voluntary behaviors. How can you get your child to clean their room? How do you train your dog not to jump on the couch? BF Skinner wanted to answer all of these questions and more.
He believed that behaviors could be discouraged or encouraged through a series of punishments or reinforcements. Punishments would decrease the likelihood that a behavior, like a dog jumping on the couch, would happen again. Reinforcements would increase the likelihood that a behavior, like a child cleaning their room, would happen again.
Examples of Negative Reinforcement in Psychology
One of the most famous examples of negative reinforcement actually appears in positive psychology. In the 1960s, Martin Seligman observed an experiment with dogs in harnesses. Some of the dogs received electric shocks from their harnesses. If they moved to the other side of an apparatus they were in, the electric shocks stopped. The stimulus (electric shock) was removed, encouraging the dogs to move to the other side of the apparatus in the future.
Of course, there is more to this experiment than the negative reinforcement, but we will touch on that later.
Examples of Negative Reinforcement in Everyday Life
Here are some other examples of negative reinforcement that you may have observed or even experienced:
- A teacher declares that there is no more assigned homework after their class behaved well at an assembly.
- Every time you go to the beach, you get sunburnt – unless you remember to put on sunscreen beforehand.
- You finish all of your work early in order to avoid rush-hour traffic.
- Your lactose-intolerant friend orders a dairy-free ice cream so they do not experience a stomachache.
- When your child screams loud enough about not wanting to take a bath, you give in and the child doesn’t have to take the bath.
In each example, a stimulus is removed in response to a behavior. The next time the person (or animal) has the choice to do that behavior, they are more likely to do it because they know the negative stimulus may be removed again.
Continuous vs. Partial Negative Reinforcement
How often are these reinforcements removed? Well, the answer depends. If the reinforcement is continuous, the stimulus is removed every time the behavior is performed. While this can happen, it’s more common for the reinforcement to be removed some of the time. This is known as partial negative reinforcement. The most effective way to increase the likelihood of a behavior happening again is to continuously reinforce the behavior, but often this is not possible (or a total hassle!)
BF Skinner and other psychologists have taken this into consideration while studying negative reinforcement. They also examined the different schedules in which partial negative reinforcement can occur. The four different reinforcement schedules are:
Let’s break these down.
A fixed-ratio schedule removes a stimulus in response to a consistent number of behaviors. For example, a teacher may take away their student’s homework assignments after good behavior at five constant assemblies.
Although the person (or animal) may have more of an understanding of when the reinforcement will be taken away, they may feel less motivated to perform the behavior immediately after the negative stimulus is removed. The next assembly after their homework is taken away, for example, they are more likely to get rowdy. Once they have three or four assemblies of good behavior under their belts, they may be more motivated to behave and get one step closer to that removal of homework.
A variable-ratio schedule removes the stimulus in response to an inconsistent number of behaviors. Maybe the assignments are removed after four assemblies of good behavior. Next time, the homework is removed after six assemblies of good behavior. Next time, the homework is removed after two assemblies of good behavior.
Another example of this is the example with the bath mentioned earlier. Every now and again, a parent may be so tired of their child screaming that they take away the stimulus of giving them a dreaded bath. In most cases, this reinforcement is doled out randomly. Yet, the child is still more likely to at least try screaming so that the negative stimulus may be removed. Although negative reinforcement can be used to encourage positive outcomes, being unintentional about reinforcement can also encourage a person (or animal) to encourage negative outcomes.
Fixed-interval schedules remove the stimulus in response to a behavior after a fixed interval of time. The snooze button is a great example of this. You typically have nine minutes to perform a behavior (getting up and turning off your alarm.) If you can perform this behavior, the stimulus (the sound of the alarm) is removed. If you do not perform this behavior, the stimulus remains.
Fixed-interval schedules can be effective, but they often encourage people to just perform the behavior right before the interval of time. Let’s say children are encouraged to help other students – if they are observed doing so, their homework will be removed on Friday. Every Friday, the teacher goes down the list of students and removes the stimulus from the students who performed the behavior. While some students will be encouraged to perform the behavior early in the week, many will “cram” that behavior into Thursday or Friday. If you are a procrastinator, this isn’t the best schedule for training yourself.
The final reinforcement schedule is a variable-interval schedule. Instead of taking away homework every Friday for students who helped others throughout the week, the “schedule” is more sporadic. One week, the teacher may take away homework on Friday afternoon. The next week, they may not take it away at all. Next week, they may take it away on Tuesday for students who were observed helping a classmate in the past week.
This is another reinforcement schedule that keeps people on their toes. If they are motivated enough to have the stimulus removed, they are likely to complete the behavior more often. However, this type of conditioning takes time, as the person does not always know when they “should” be performing the behavior.
Is Negative Reinforcement Effective?
Negative reinforcement can be an effective tool, both to “escape” a stimulus or to actively avoid it happening. We do not wear sunscreen to “escape” sunburn but to avoid it happening. We pay taxes, not to “escape” a fine but to actively avoid getting one. Think of all of the things you do to avoid responses. This is the power of negative reinforcement.
Of course, this can work in unintended ways. The child who screams to avoid a bath or eating vegetables is being influenced by negative reinforcement, especially if parents “give in” consistently. And, if negative reinforcement is not used early on, a child or animal may not understand that they can “escape” a negative stimulus.
Learned Helplessness Effects
Remember the dog experiment I mentioned earlier? This was an effective form of negative reinforcement – sometimes. Dogs who could not escape the shock collar in early trials, no matter what they did, were less likely to even make an attempt at the desired behavior because they had learned helplessness. The dogs who felt they were in control of their behavior, and understood that the negative stimulus would be removed in response to their behavior, were more likely to even attempt the behavior.
Alternatives to Negative Reinforcement
If you are trying to train a dog to sit or encourage your child to eat their vegetables, be mindful of the stimuli that you are adding and removing in response to their behaviors. It may also be helpful to explore other forms of operant conditioning, including positive reinforcement and positive or negative punishment.
Reddit user rhoeox asked the DogTraining subreddit, “If negative reinforcement isn’t the right strategy, how do you get your dog to stop behaviors?” The comment section is full of ways to reinforce, punish, and even prevent behaviors!