Positive Reinforcement (Definition + Examples)

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Practical Psychology
Courtney Beatey
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Courtney Beatey, B.Ed

We all have habits that we would like to see people continue and habits that we would like to see people stop. By people, I mean friends, family members, kids, or even ourselves. How can we get someone to stop throwing their recycling in the trash or to keep going to the gym with us?

Psychologists have been trying to answer these questions for years. One of the more famous “answers” is operant conditioning, or using punishments and reinforcements to influence behavior. In this video, we are going to be focusing on reinforcement, but not just any reinforcement - positive reinforcement. (Yes, there is a negative reinforcement, too.) I'll discuss positive reinforcement, its effectiveness, and the reinforcement schedules psychologists have developed to make it more effective.

About Operant Conditioning

Before getting into these definitions, I want you to know where these terms came from. In the late 1930s, American psychologist BF Skinner introduced the world to operant conditioning. Unlike classical conditioning (made famous by Pavlov’s dog experiments,) operant conditioning looks at how people can influence voluntary behaviors. BF Skinner believed this could be done by using reinforcements and punishments to increase the likelihood of some behaviors and decrease the likelihood of others.

Of course, behavior isn’t always that simple. BF Skinner wanted to dig deeper into the motivations that lead people to perform certain behaviors and what could motivate them to curb others. In addition to the idea of positive and negative reinforcement, he also examined different schedules and how they affected the likelihood that a behavior would be performed again. We will get to the schedules in a minute; first, let’s talk about what positive reinforcement is and what it looks like in everyday life.

The Pigeon Experiment: A Window to Positive Reinforcement

Within the confines of a specialized chamber, often called the "Skinner Box," pigeons became the subjects of an insightful exploration into positive reinforcement. The structured environment allowed for a specific behavior, like key pecking, to be immediately followed by a reward, which in this case was access to food. Through consistent repetition, the pigeons formed an association between pecking the key and receiving a rewarding stimulus, increasing the frequency of the behavior, even in scenarios where the reward was not consistently presented. This association illuminated that a behavior can be systematically increased by pairing it with a positive outcome or reward.

Legacy of Skinner’s Work in Modern Context

Skinner's pigeon experiments have become emblematic of positive reinforcement principles, demonstrating that behavior can be strategically shaped by coupling it with rewarding stimuli. His work has transcended its initial context, influencing fields like education and workplace management by providing a methodological approach to shaping and directing behavior through positive reinforcement. Understanding and applying these principles, derived from Skinner’s meticulous research, enables the development of strategies that foster desired behaviors across various domains, establishing a blueprint for behavior modification, teaching, and learning in practical settings.

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement involves introducing a favorable stimulus to encourage the repetition of a particular behavior. For instance, when a child is given a piece of candy each time they clean their room, this rewarding stimulus (candy) acts as an incentive, encouraging them to repeat the behavior (cleaning) in anticipation of receiving the reward again.

Diving deeper into the concept, positive reinforcement specifically entails the addition of a desirable stimulus to bolster the recurrence of a behavior. This concept is contrasted with negative reinforcement, which involves removing an undesirable stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated similarly. Positive reinforcement might involve awarding a student a gold star each time they provide a correct answer, creating an association between the desirable behavior (answering correctly) and a reward stimulus (receiving a star). Conversely, negative reinforcement could manifest as allowing students to leave the study hall early once they finish their work, thereby removing an undesirable stimulus (remaining in the study hall) to promote the desired behavior (completing work promptly). In the context of negative reinforcement, the reinforcing element is the cessation of an unpleasant experience (such as being allowed to stop running once a goal is met or a loud alarm being silenced once a specific action is taken).

Centering our attention on positive reinforcement, let's delve into various responses and stimuli that can be integrated into an individual’s experience to encourage the recurrence of specific behaviors. In doing so, it is crucial to identify genuinely rewarding or desirable stimuli to the individual, thereby effectively enhancing the propensity for the desired behavior to be repeated.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

These are all examples of positive reinforcement that you might have witnessed or experienced:

  • Paychecks are regularly given to employees who attend work and do their job.
  • A parent gives their child a dollar for cleaning their room.
  • Every time customers buy nine coffees, they get the tenth one for free.
  • An app tells you, “Good job!” after you have recorded a workout.
  • A teacher gives their student a sticker every time they ace their test.
  • You treat your dog every time they “sit” on command.

Continuous vs. Partial Reinforcement

There are a few ways to approach positive reinforcement. You can either offer continuous reinforcement or partial reinforcement. Most likely, you have experienced giving or receiving reinforcement through both of these schedules.

Continuous reinforcement is when a person or animal is given reinforcement every time they complete a behavior. This means your dog gets treated every time they “sit” on command. Your app says “good job” every time you finish a workout, without fail. Psychologists have found this is the best way to introduce a person or animal to a new behavior. Continuous reinforcement establishes the “way things work.”

On the other hand, partial reinforcement is a process in which the person or animal is sometimes given reinforcement. A parent may not have ice cream in the fridge whenever their child cleans their room. A coffee shop can’t afford to give out a free coffee whenever their customers buy one. Partial reinforcement, sometimes random and other times on a strict schedule, is less effective than continuous reinforcement but can still get the job done.

Reinforcement Schedules

Let’s break down partial reinforcement further. There are four different “schedules” that can be used to give out positive reinforcement:

  • Fixed-ratio
  • Variable-ratio
  • Fixed-interval
  • Variable-interval

These different schedules have a different level of effectiveness.


Schedules are based on the consistency of when the reward is delivered and how soon the reinforcement is delivered. In a fixed-ratio schedule, a person or animal is consistently given reinforcement after they have performed a behavior a certain amount of times. They are not given reinforcement every time, but they know they will always get the stimulus after the fourth, fifth, or tenth time they perform the behavior.

For example, the coffee shop that gives out a free coffee after purchasing nine coffees is on a fixed-ratio schedule. The customer knows they will get one for free after that ninth coffee.

This is one of the most effective schedules to use. While the person performing the behavior may not return to the behavior immediately after the reinforcement is distributed, they will pick things back up once they know they are getting closer to getting their “prize.” You are more likely to stop by the coffee shop in the morning if you know you only have two coffees before your free one, right?


But what if you didn’t know how many coffees you needed to buy before you qualified for a free one? This is a variable-ratio schedule. The reinforcement is distributed immediately after the behavior is performed several times, but those times vary. Let’s say you treat your dog five times after they “sit” on command. Then, you don’t give them another treat until they “sit” on command ten times. After that, you don’t give them another treat until they “sit” on command three times. While this may seem chaotic, it’s actually a very effective form of positive reinforcement.

Can you think of the most well-known, addictive example of a variable-ratio schedule? Here’s a hint: you’ll hit the jackpot if you get the right answer. That’s right! Slot machines are one of the best examples of this positive reinforcement schedule. You can’t guarantee when you'll win the jackpot, but if you sit down long enough and keep playing, you eventually will. This is why casinos bring in so much money. People are willing to give up much time and cash for positive reinforcement.


Schedules may also be determined by time rather than the occurrence of the behavior. This is called a “fixed-interval” schedule. There are two ways to look at this. One is by examining how paychecks are distributed. People get paychecks for a job once a month or every two weeks. If the person worked during that time, they received their paycheck. This is certainly a motivating reason to show up to work!

However, experiments with animals may not involve paychecks or week-long periods between reinforcements. Instead, an animal in a lab may receive a treat every 10 minutes if they press on a lever. Every 10 minutes, that treat will be distributed, but only if the behavior is performed. During that time, the animal will find the motivation to press the lever.

There are some drawbacks to this reinforcement schedule. The animal may only be encouraged to perform the behavior at the nine-minute mark rather than immediately after receiving their reinforcement. If you told your child that they could play video games on Sunday as long as they did their chores, they may only be motivated to speed through the chores on Saturday night. Still, the behavior gets done.


The last reinforcement schedule is a variable-interval schedule. This is similar to the fixed-interval schedule, although the amount of time that has passed will vary. One week, you may tell your child they can play video games on Sunday only if their room is clean. Next week, that day might be Thursday. Next, it will be Wednesday. The person (or animal) performing the behavior does not know when the reinforcement is coming. Although they may not perform the behavior every day immediately, they will eventually develop a habit of performing that behavior.

Another example of a variable-interval schedule is a “surprise” evaluation from a manager at work. You get a free gift card if you have the right uniform or offer excellent service when the manager evaluates you. This schedule keeps people “on their toes.”

Applying Positive Reinforcement Across Various Fields

In Clinical Psychology, positive reinforcement is crucial in developing and managing behaviors. An instance of this can be found in Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, commonly utilized for treating Autism Spectrum Disorder. Therapists reward socially appropriate behaviors, such as making eye contact or engaging in shared communication, thus gradually encouraging these actions. Through consistent and tailored application, this approach has demonstrated notable improvements in promoting beneficial behaviors among individuals with autism.

In Education, the concept is equally pivotal, shaping and sustaining student behaviors and engagement in academic activities. The Good Behavior Game (GBG), a widely acknowledged classroom management strategy, reinforces positive behavior by granting points to student groups for showcasing appropriate behaviors, which can later be exchanged for privileges or rewards. The application of GBG has been shown to facilitate not only immediate enhancement in student behavior but also long-lasting benefits like bolstered academic performance and minimized susceptibility to antisocial behavior.

Lastly, in Self-Management, positive reinforcement can substantially assist individuals in achieving goals and cultivating productive habits. For instance, establishing a personal reward system, such as indulging in a beloved activity upon completing a challenging task, can be a positive reinforcer to navigate procrastination and amplify productivity. Through structured and consistent application, positive reinforcement becomes a strategic tool in steering toward effective self-management and realizing personal goals.

Effectiveness and Implications of Reinforcement vs. Punishment

The efficacy of varied schedules in operant conditioning can be influenced by the specific behavior being targeted and the nature of the reinforcement applied. A notable example of positive reinforcement's effectiveness can be drawn from a study by Kazdin and Bootzin (1972), wherein systematic reinforcement was used to successfully increase the bedtime compliance of children, demonstrating that reinforcing desirable behavior effectively encouraged its repetition. On the other hand, while sometimes effective, punishments are often approached with caution in behavioral management due to their associated consequences and ethical considerations. For instance, corporal punishment, once a commonplace method of disciplining children, has increasingly fallen out of favor as many studies (e.g., Gershoff, 2002) have linked it to a range of negative outcomes, such as increased aggression and antisocial behavior among children.

Consequences and Criticisms of Punishment

When scrutinizing punishment, especially in a child-rearing context, one can point to the tangible and lasting adverse impacts it often precipitates. A considerable body of research, including a longitudinal study conducted by Afifi et al. (2017), reveals a correlation between harsh physical punishment and various mental health issues, illustrating that punitive measures might address immediate compliance but foster longer-term behavioral and emotional challenges. Moreover, studies indicate that the effectiveness of punishment can be transient and context-specific, potentially leading to an escalation in the severity of punishments needed to manage behaviors and inadvertently reinforcing them instead (Sidman, 1989).

Advocacy for Reinforcement Strategies

Given punishment's complexities and potential pitfalls, reinforcement strategies, particularly positive reinforcement, are generally recommended for behavioral management and development. For example, in the educational sector, a study by Haydon and Mustafa (2013) illustrated the effectiveness of using positive reinforcement strategies, such as specific praise and token systems, in enhancing student engagement and reducing disruptive behavior in classrooms. Such paradigms, which underscore the constructive and sustainable impact of positive reinforcements, reiterate the preferential tendency towards employing reinforcement over punishment to motivate, guide, and modify behaviors in varied contexts, ensuring a nurturing and supportive environment for behavioral development.

Reference this article:

Practical Psychology. (2021, April). Positive Reinforcement (Definition + Examples). Retrieved from https://practicalpie.com/positive-reinforcement/.

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