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What Is Negative Reinforcement And Does It Really Work?

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Negative reinforcement is an effective way to change behavior. And you can use it in your life too! Here is how it works: 

What is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is taking away something unpleasant to strengthen a desirable behavior. Over time, the frequency of the positive behavior should increase because of the expectation that the unpleasant action or consequence will be taken away.

American psychologist B. F. Skinner used the term negative reinforcement in his theory of operant behavior

Operant behavior, also known as operant conditioning, is a method of learning in which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment.

Sound confusing? Let’s clarify what it is and isn’t.

How does negative reinforcement work?

According to Skinner, an aversive stimulus is an “unpleasant event intended to decrease the probability of a behavior when presented as a consequence (i.e., punishment). However, an aversive stimulus may also increase the probability of a behavior when it is removed as a consequence, and in this way, it will function as negative reinforcement.”

In other words, a stimulus is something that influences behavior. It can either be pleasant, unpleasant, internal, or external.

Regardless of the stimulus, for negative reinforcement to work successfully, whatever is taken away must be done immediately after the desired behavior occurs to encourage the behavior and increase it.

Let’s look at some examples of negative reinforcement.

  • Taking medication for lactose intolerance before a pizza dinner to avoid a stomach upset. In this case, you remove the unpleasant feeling by proactively taking medication before eating.
  • Wearing two pairs of socks when hiking to avoid blisters. You proactively put on two socks to prevent a painful blister.
  • Leaving for work early to avoid being late. You eliminate the negative consequences of being late by planning ahead and leaving early.
  • Not speeding to avoid a speeding ticket. You stay within the speed limit to prevent the negative consequence of getting a ticket.
  • Picking up after yourself to avoid fighting with your partner. You know your partner will be unhappy if the house is a mess, so you prevent that situation by cleaning up. 
  • Setting your gym clothes out the night before to avoid being late for an early morning workout. You put out your clothes because you don’t like missing workouts.
  • Studying for tests to avoid bad grades. To prevent bad grades (negative), you study. You know that studying helps you get good grades.
  • Bringing your lunch to work to avoid being hungry. Because you don’t like feeling hungry, and you know eating lunch satisfies your hunger, you proactively bring your lunch.
  • Taking out the trash to avoid a bad smell. When your trash smells bad, the whole room reeks. To avoid this unpleasantness, you empty the trash before it’s rancid.
  • Fastening seatbelt to avoid loud beeping. The fasten seatbelt alarm is annoying. To avoid being annoyed (or simply hearing the sound), you fasten it.
  • Disarming the car alarm to prevent it from going off. The car alarm is loud, and to avoid it from waking your neighborhood in the morning, you turn it off before it disturbs others.
  • Turning off notifications on your phone to relieve anxiety. You know that the constant beeping of your phone alerts feels stressful. So you turn them off to avoid the stress.
  • Getting an oil change to avoid damage to your vehicle. Your car needs oil to run well. So instead of risking damage, you plan to get the oil changed proactively.
  • Wearing a hat to protect your face from the sun. Sunburn is uncomfortable, so you slather your skin with sunscreen to avoid discomfort and sun damage.

Each of these behaviors eliminates undesirable outcomes—digestive discomfort, blisters, fighting, and being late to your workout, for example—making the positive or proactive behavior more likely to occur in the future.

But what happens if negative reinforcement encourages behaviors you don’t want?

For example, you prepare brussels sprouts for dinner, and your child promptly spits them out. You exchange them for something they prefer, which reinforces the behavior. It tells the child that if they don’t like something, they can spit it out and have something else to eat.

Or your dog starts whining. You want the whining to stop, so give the pup a treat. While your response stops the whining, your dog learns it can complain to get a treat.

Instead of solving the whining problem with a treat, look for ways to reinforce desirable behavior, like giving them attention regularly, scratching their ears, or tossing them a ball. Find other tips for behavior management with your pooch here.

Negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is not the opposite of positive reinforcement. Remember, the positive and negative words don’t mean good or bad in this type of psychology.

  • Positive reinforcement: when a pleasant stimulus is added following a response, making the response more likely to recur
  • Negative reinforcement: when an unpleasant stimulus is removed following a response; making the response more likely to recur

In both cases, reinforcement increases the chances the behavior is repeated. However, the critical difference is whether something is added (positive) or taken away (negative) to achieve the desired behavior.

Let’s go back to the brussels sprouts scenario. Instead of removing them from the plate, you offered the child 10 minutes of extra playtime before bed for eating 5 sprouts. This is an example of positive reinforcement because extra playtime is added to reinforce the behavior.

Similarly, if you’re trying to lose weight and give yourself extra spending money every time you lose a pound, you are positively reinforcing the behavior.

However, if you lose weight to avoid being chastised by a coach, that is negative reinforcement (and you probably want to get a different, more supportive coach!).

Want to learn more about positive reinforcement? Read our comprehensive guide with examples here.

Using positive and negative reinforcement together

Sometimes it makes sense to use positive and negative reinforcement together for long-term behavior modification.

Imagine a parent wanting their child to brush their teeth without prompting. Every time the child brushes, the parent praises them and rewards them. This is positive reinforcement because the consequence is added (through praise and a prize) following the desired behavior (brushing teeth without prompting).

However, if the child starts brushing independently and the parent stops nagging them about it, this is negative reinforcement because the parents remove the nagging.

You can use both behaviors together to strengthen the desired behavior further, and research suggests this is a very effective approach. One possible explanation is that combining the two increases each reinforcer’s individual value.

Enjoy this clip from Big Bang Theory on positive reinforcement.

Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Now let’s talk about reinforcement versus punishment. Reinforcement, even when negative, always increases a behavior, whereas positive or negative punishment always decreases a behavior.

If you prefer to learn through videos, check out this 2-minute overview on negative reinforcement vs. punishment.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

 Reinforcement (increase)Punishment (decrease)
Positive (added)Something is added to increase the likelihood of a behaviorSomething is added to decrease the likelihood of a behavior
Negative (removed)Something is removed to increase the likelihood of a behaviorSomething is removed to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

Consider these 3 examples of punishment where the intent is to decrease the behavior.

A hockey player delivers an illegal hit during a game. The hitter gets a fine and a several-game suspension. The player loses money (negative punishment) to decrease the behavior (illegal checking).

A teenager brings home an F on a writing assignment. The parent grounds them for a week, losing access to their friends and fun (negative punishment) to decrease the behavior (not performing well.)

If the parent instead added tutoring appointments, this is positive punishment because they’ve added tutoring to decrease the likelihood of the behavior (getting a bad grade).

Reinforcement in the Workplace

Just as schools have ample opportunity for negative reinforcement, so does the workplace. Reinforcement can be a positive way to encourage workplace performance and motivate employees. Consider a 2021 report comparing 70,000 U.S. companies’ worker satisfaction, where Adobe was ranked the No.1 company with the happiest employees. 

Some of the most intriguing employee feedback included: 

  • They get positive feedback every week
  • They have a “comfortably fast” work pace
  • The average employee has 4+ meetings per day 
  • There are unlimited paid vacation and sick days
  • 85% of employees report being happy with their work-life balance
  • 95% of employees look forward to working with their team every day
  • The leadership team is always available to talk to
  • The CEO regularly stops in to say hello

Can you spot some of the reinforcers on that list? Positive feedback, unlimited paid vacation and sick days, work culture, collaboration, and open communication with leadership.

Here’s another way to look at it:

  • Desired behavior: Getting along with coworkers
  • Positive reinforcer: More pleasant work environment
  • Negative reinforcement: Nagging
  • Result: Peers are nicer to each other
  • Desired behavior: Meeting deadlines
  • Positive reinforcer: Kind words from the supervisor
  • Negative reinforcer: Threats
  • Result: Motivation to complete the task and personal satisfaction increases
  • Desired behavior: Paying attention in a meeting
  • Positive reinforcer: Meeting ends early
  • Negative reinforcer: Boss declares meeting a “no phone zone.”
  • Result: More productive meetings

When looking at ways to motivate your employees, it’s essential to consider these things:

  1. Understanding what makes each person tick. Use meaningful reinforcers to the individual (for example, one person may want to be verbally recognized in an all-staff meeting, while another may prefer the occasional small gift.)
  2. Provide reinforcement as quickly as possible after the behavior. (For example, when an employee exceeds their sales goals, give the reward immediately so that the two events are emotionally connected.)
  3. Be specific about what behavior you are reinforcing. For it to be effective, the employee needs to know what they did. Rather than awarding the “Employee of the Month,” consider drilling down even further. For example, you could say, “We’re awarding you  the Employee of the Month prize because of your positive attitude this week when you handled 16 transactions with a smile, even though we were short-staffed that day.” Being specific helps reinforce the behavior, making it likely to occur again.
  4. Avoid mixing reinforcement and punishment. When rewards and punishment are given in the same meeting, they lose their effectiveness because they become linked. Instead, reward people during team meetings and reserve the reprimands for one-on-ones.
  5. Be consistent. Reinforcers delivered often and consistently are more effective. Think about things like saying thank you and allowing the employee to choose a project partner or their assignment.

To master the art of encouraging employees to perform at their highest potential, read our 20 Awesome (& Fun) Ways to Motivate Employees.

Reinforcement in the Classroom

Teachers often use reinforcement to teach new skills or to increase appropriate or desired behaviors. Although the ultimate goal is for students to be self-motivated and regulated, teachers use reinforcers to encourage a behavior initially. And this is done through both positive (adding something) and negative (removing something) reinforcement.

Positive reinforcers fall into three categories: tangible, social, and activity.

  • Tangible reinforcers are items a student can see, touch or hold, such as stickers, school supplies, and certificates.
  • Social reinforcers include interpersonal interactions, such as cheering or clapping for others, choosing a partner for an activity, praise, and a thumbs-up.
  • Activity reinforcers include any activity desirable to the student, like reading a story, extra recess, being the teacher’s helper, and exploring a topic of interest.

Negative reinforcement in the classroom might look like:

  • Not giving weekend homework to those who get along with classmates
  • Not making students do extra laps in PE if they are on time for class
  • Ignoring misbehaving students
  • Taking away cell phones of students texting in class
  • Eliminating morning sports practice if the team wins a game

The approach’s effectiveness depends on the student’s motivation, age, and maturity. If a student doesn’t care about whether they get good grades or detention, it’s unlikely to be an effective approach.

For example, a teacher might give a student who doesn’t enjoy math a break from doing math problems after completing a few. Watch this short example. Or a teacher might allow students with an A average to skip the final exam.

Sometimes negative reinforcement happens inadvertently.

Consider this example. The teacher asks students to complete a writing assignment. One student who doesn’t feel confident about their writing starts to make jokes, distracting other students. The teacher sends the student to the principal’s office. The student doesn’t mind because the unpleasant task (writing assignment) is removed, thus increasing the likelihood of this behavior in the future.

Negative Reinforcement in a Nutshell

Negative reinforcement can be effective in various situations—in your own life, at work, in relationships and parenting, and with pets. And negative reinforcement is not a bad thing. 

You probably already use it to modify your behaviors, like slathering your face with sunscreen to prevent skin damage, drinking water to stay hydrated, or going to be earlier to avoid feeling overtired.

Negative reinforcement can be simple and effective, but it’s particularly powerful when combined with positive reinforcement. Want to change your behavior? Look to what you can add or subtract to increase or decrease the likeliness of the behavior.

One word of caution: when working with children, particularly those with mental health or special needs, it’s important to realize they may not have the skills to understand or control challenging behaviors. Consider seeking guidance from an Applied Behavioral Therapist for the most effective approach.

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