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Positive Reinforcement: What is It and How Does it Work?

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Think again if you think positive reinforcement is just for children and dogs. Positive reinforcement is a tool that can shift the way you interact with everyone around you, including yourself. 

What is Positive Reinforcement? 

Positive reinforcement is the addition of a stimulus to create the desired behavior. In the 1930s, B.F. Skinner conducted a series of experiments on rats and pigeons. He concluded that humans could learn to complete the desired behavior just as pigeons learned to turn in a circle or peck a disc at timed intervals. Humans are a bit more complicated than a pigeon, but the general idea gives us an exciting framework for adjusting behavior. Examples of positive reinforcement are offering someone a cookie if they eat dinner or giving someone a bonus for a job well done.

What’s The Goal of Positive Reinforcement? 

Positive reinforcement aims to adjust behavior, instill confidence, or change mindset. The goals change based on the situation and the person but can be broken down into these general categories.

Coaching & Work: Increasing motivation

Relationships: Setting boundaries

Yourself: Building confidence and a growth mindset

Children: Understanding choices and consequences or instilling confidence and a growth mindset

What’s The Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement? 

The difference between positive and negative reinforcement is either the removal (negative reinforcement) or addition (positive reinforcement) of a stimulus to create positive behavior. Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, but it’s completely different.

Positive and negative reinforcement graph

If this seems confusing, think of the words “positive” and “negative” as math terms. In this case, positive and negative do not mean “good” or “bad.” 

Negative reinforcement is the removal (-) of a stimulus to achieve the desired result. 

Positive and negative reinforcement symbols

Positive Reinforcement Examples 

A teacher tells her students if they turn in their homework each week, she will reward them with 10-minutes of extra computer time. 

Addition of a stimulus: 10 minutes of computer time

Behavior reinforcement: Completing homework

Now let’s look at an office example—workers aren’t meeting their quota, and the manager wants to see this change. He calls a meeting to announce that the first person to reach the monthly percentage will receive an extra monetary bonus. 

Addition of a positive stimulus: Monetary incentive

Behavior reinforcement: Being first to meet their quota

Negative Reinforcement Examples

Now let’s flip the scenarios to negative reinforcement, where we remove a stimulus to encourage a behavior.  

For example, a teacher tells her students they won’t have to take the final if they have an A by the end of the semester. 

Removal of stimulus: Final exam

Behavior reinforcement: Studying hard and getting an A

Another example of negative reinforcement could be a toxic manager who is largely absent except when the workers fail to meet a certain quota. 

Removal of stimulus: Manager criticism

Behavior reinforcement: Meeting the quota 

This work scenario isn’t a good situation, but it demonstrates how reinforcement can happen even unintentionally. 

What’s The Difference Between Positive and Negative Punishment? 

The difference between positive and negative punishment is the removal or addition of a stimulus to discourage a behavior. 

Positive punishment is the adding (+) of a stimulus to reduce an undesired behavior. 

Negative punishment is the removal (-) of a stimulus to reduce an undesired behavior. 

Positive Punishment Examples 

Let’s continue with the exact examples using punishment instead of reinforcement. 

Students aren’t completing their homework, so the teacher verbally reprimands the class and assigns an extra research project.

Addition of stimulus: Verbal reprimand and research project

Behavior modification: Homework completion

At the office, employees aren’t meeting the quota, so the manager increases their workload.

Addition of stimulus: Increased workload

Behavior modification: Meeting the quota

Negative Punishment Examples

Let’s flip the scenarios again to demonstrate the difference between adding or removing a stimulus. 

Students aren’t completing their homework, so the teacher removes all computer privileges until the whole class starts turning in homework on time. 

Removal of stimulus: Computer privileges

Behavior modification: Homework completion

At the office, employees aren’t meeting the quota. The manager feels this is partly because of people’s excessive time in the break room. He removes access to the break room until they meet the quotas. 

Removal of Stimulus: Access to the break room

Behavior modification: Meeting the quota

Positive Reinforcement 101 (With Examples)

There are a few things to remember when you start using positive reinforcement:

  1. Understand the needs and emotions of the other person. It’s unhelpful to reward a child with computer time if they would rather play outside. Similarly, not all workers are motivated by monetary incentives. 
  2. Change the stimulus periodically to avoid satiation. Satiation is when a stimulus no longer motivates a person to attain the desired behavior. 
  3. Your goal is not manipulation. While Skinner promoted manipulation to create a better world, using positive reinforcement should be focused on looking for ways to support, encourage, and motivate instead of ways to control. 
  4. Be consistent. Consistency is what teaches a person to repeat the desired behavior. Avoid rewarding the individual when he hasn’t accomplished the stated goal/behavior, as this leads them to expect rewards regardless of their behavior. 

4 Types of Positive Reinforcers

There are four different categories of positive reinforcers. People often gravitate to tangible reinforcers, but these are not always the most effective. 

  • Natural and Direct Reinforcers. These are reinforcers that occur naturally without outside facilitation. They could include social acceptance, participation, and healthy attention.
  • Social Reinforcers. Social reinforcers include verbal, written, or nonverbal expressions of praise and approval.
  • Activity Reinforcers. Games, computer time, or another chosen activity are all activity reinforcers. 
  • Tangible Reinforcers. Tangible reinforcers include food, toys, balloons, stickers, and other physical awards. 
  • Token Reinforcers. Token reinforcers are when the person collects points or tokens to receive a chosen reward once enough points have been collected. For children, just the process of collecting points can feel rewarding.  

Important Note: Some researchers discourage using food as positive reinforcement for children/adolescents because of its potentially harmful effect on eating behavior in adulthood. Also, a study with autistic children found that combined sensory reinforcers were more effective than food over time. Food may be easy, but it can be more harmful and less effective. 

Timing for Positive Reinforcement

There are 4 categories of timing you can use. 

  • Fixed interval: There is a set time to give the reward, such as at the end of each day. 
  • Variable interval: The time of the reward varies. For example, it is sometimes given at the end of the day, the end of the week, or every few days. 
  • Fixed ratio: The person is rewarded only a predetermined amount of times and is given the reward after completing the desired behavior. 
  • Variable ratio: This timing is spaced out and varied over time. For example, the variable could be after they complete the behavior 3 times, 6 times, then 2 times. It’s interesting to note that this is the timing system used in gambling.

Fixed Interval Reinforcer Examples

  • If you balance your checkbook every Sunday evening, you will reward yourself with ordering takeout.
  • If the whole class lines up quietly 5 minutes before the lunch bell, you will read a book to them after lunch. 
  • Every night, dinner is at 7. If your child helps set the table at 6:55, you reward them with verbal and nonverbal affirmation. Verbal affirmation should be specific, such as, “I know I can always count on you to help set the table! Thank you for being so dependable,” or, “You did an excellent job setting the table! Everything looks perfect.” Add nonverbal affirmation by making eye contact and smiling. 

Variable Interval Reinforcer Examples 

  • A secret shopper comes to a restaurant or store to check if everything is running according to best practices. If employees provide good service, the employee(s) may receive either a bonus or verbal recognition.
  • After the kids in a classroom are quiet for 3 minutes (during a calm activity), you verbally affirm them. The next day, the interval might change to be after 1 minute or 15 minutes. If they’ve been quiet at the appropriate intervals all week, you surprise them on Friday with a fun activity, making sure to communicate the behavior you are rewarding them for. 

Fixed Ratio Reinforcer Examples

  • Your child knows he will receive 1 extra hour of game time after he takes out the trash 5 times in a row. 
  • A sales rep knows they will earn a commission after every 3rd sale they close.
  • After working for 6 months, the employee knows they will receive a bonus. After completing X hours, the employee gets a second retention bonus. 

Variable Ratio Reinforcer Examples

  • Your dog already knows how to sit, but you want to teach him to sit longer. If he sits, he receives either nothing or a verbal affirmation. If the dog sits longer, you give him a verbal affirmation and a treat. 
  • Students know you give random rewards at varying times, but they don’t know when or how to earn the reward. Sometimes you give a prize to the most helpful person over the last month. One time, the person who completed their homework every week got their name and picture on the board announcing their hard work. 
  • You notice your teen has been studying hard all week, and when you walk into the kitchen, you see them doing the dishes. You give them specific verbal affirmation, “You’ve been working so hard this week! Thank you for taking care of your chores, even though school has been so busy. I’m proud of you.”  

How to Use Positive Reinforcement in the Workplace

Everyone loves perks, incentives, and tangible gifts, but if you want to reinforce a happy workplace, research from TED concludes that you’ll need to invest in these three things: 

  1. Trust. Giving autonomy and decision-making control will reinforce to your workers that it’s good to take the initiative and think creatively
  2. Fairness. Providing pay equity (equal pay for equal work) positively reinforces the work ALL workers are doing. Fairness, whether in compensation or other office practices, reinforces a culture of justice and creates loyalty. 
  3. Listening. When you listen to good ideas and honestly consider input, it positively reinforces employee performance. If employees don’t feel listened to, this reinforces that you don’t value them and shuts down future communication.
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According to the Research:

  • Positive reinforcement positively links to performance.
  • Motivation factors for positive reinforcement include high salary, comfortable working conditions, promotion, challenging work, job security, and appreciation shown for work done.
  • Monetary positive reinforcement is more robust but less permanent than non-monetary reinforcement. 

How to Use Positive Reinforcement With Children

When using positive reinforcement with children, come at it from the perspective of choices and consequences rather than manipulating your child to complete specific desirable actions. Teaching that there are consequences for their choices gives them freedom and autonomy to make their own decisions. 

You likely want your child or student to make their own decisions and be prepared to face the world without constant protection and direction.

You can also give them a strong foundation by positively reinforcing their confidence. If you see a child struggling to complete an action, don’t withhold praise because of your positive reinforcement plan! Kids need encouragement, and they need to learn that even failure is growth. Tell them what a great job they did and encourage them to keep trying until they succeed.

Disclaimer: Don’t confuse this with giving rewards even if they haven’t tried or are in the middle of a tantrum. 

Because you’re not raising a machine, your goal is not behavior modification; it’s mindset growth. 

Take it from Carson Byblow, a 5th grader who struggled to read and used to have meltdowns whenever anyone tried to help him with his reading. He shares how a growth mindset has changed his view of failure and motivates him to keep trying. 

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In this case, the positive reinforcement he needed was consistent affirmation from parents and teachers—not because he’d accomplished a specific behavior, but because he was trying. 

They encouraged him to keep trying and to shift from “I can’t do this” to “I can’t do this yet.” 

We all know it takes time to develop a new skill or habit, but somehow we forget this when we interact with children! As you teach the children in your life, remember to be patient and not lash out verbally if they don’t learn as fast as you’d hoped. 

According to the research:

  • If positive reinforcement isn’t working, try to find a more effective stimulus that caters to the child.
  • Some researchers discourage using food and non-specific praise (e.g., good job) for positive reinforcement. 
  • Positive reinforcement is helpful for young children who are exhibiting challenging behavior.
  • Consistent implementation is vital to the success of positive reinforcement. 
  • Reduce positive reinforcement over time to avoid dependence on the support or the adult. 
My best bee-havior worksheet

Pro Tip: Print out this chart to help get behavior back on track

Important Disclaimer: Vanessa Van Edwards shows us that when kids lie, there is a motivating factor behind their lies. 

For example, Vanessa’s daughter lied about having headaches because she liked the taste of the medicine. In that situation, Vanessa simply had a conversation with her daughter. She didn’t need to set up an entire positive reinforcement plan. 

This is true about more than lying! 

When a child exhibits ongoing harmful or undesirable behavior, there may be contributing factors that created the behavior in the first place. Your first course of action is to explore and find out what that might be. If there is a more serious problem behind the behavior, giving a child stickers or treats is like putting a bandaid on a broken arm. 

Also, avoid positive reinforcement that crosses over into giving conditional love. This teaches a child their self-worth is what they do and that if they strive to meet all the conditions, they will receive rewards-based love.

How to Use Positive Reinforcement in Your Own Life 

When Wendy Smith was 17 years old, she had an accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down. Doctors said she’d never walk again, but now, years later, she stepped onto the stage to deliver a TED talk that could change your perspective on what you can and can’t do.

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Whatever obstacles you face in your life, shift your inner voice to provide positive reinforcement rather than criticism and defeat. Wendy recommends these steps:

  1. Close your eyes and think about something you want to accomplish but feel that you can’t. 
  2. Listen to your inner voice and note how that feels in your body. 
  3. Change the voice of criticism to a high-pitched tone, then take it down to a deep tone. 
  4. Then, change the inner voice to acceptance and accomplishment. 
  5. Replace the negative words with ones of confidence, excitement, and success.
  6. Accept these positive words as truth. 

Think big, think “I can,” and then you WILL. -Wendy Smith

When using positive reinforcement in your life, train your brain to believe you can and will succeed. 

More Examples for Using Positive Reinforcement 

How you behave is constantly reinforcing something. But what are you reinforcing? 

Are you teaching people to respect you or take advantage of you? 

Are you reinforcing love and trust in relationships or building suspicion and hostility? 

As an adult, positive reinforcement isn’t about training other people the way some people train dogs or how Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory attempts to train Penny in this video. 

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*Note: When Sheldon talks about negative reinforcement, he talks about positive punishment. 

Instead, positive reinforcement is an intentional way of interacting with the people around you to set boundaries for goodness, kindness, and potential. 

Positive Reinforcement Examples in Dating

  • When your partner is loving, you reach out with physical contact to reinforce their affectionate behavior. 
  • When you meet a new person, you communicate that you don’t like texting and love it when someone calls instead. When they call you, positively reinforce by verbal affirmation. 
  • When your partner does something thoughtful, make eye contact while expressing gratitude. Increase your attention and focus each time they do something thoughtful. 
  • When your date compliments you, smile and return the compliment.
  • Mirror your date when they are being attentive and positive. 

Positive Reinforcement Examples in Families 

  • Your aunt often criticizes your life choices, but you’re tired of being cut down. On the rare occasion that she is pleasant, positively reinforce her by giving focused attention and eye contact. Use your nonverbals of smiling or frowning to reinforce what is acceptable and unacceptable communication. 
  • Your daughter has been doing the dishes every night without complaining. You thank her for being diligent and reward her by doing the dishes that evening.
  • You give your son a high-five when he brushes his teeth without you asking him.
  • Your son has been working on controlling his anger. You give him verbal praise, and he can choose the family activity for the weekend. 
  • Your dad has been more open in his communication lately and even told you that he loves you. Listen attentively when he verbalizes something he wouldn’t have when you were growing up. Verbally affirm, “thank you for sharing that with me.” or, “it means a lot when you talk about these things.” or, “I feel more connected with you when we talk.” 

Positive Reinforcement Examples in Sports 

  • You are teaching spotting techniques in the weight room, and everyone has been using safe practices. You reward them by removing half the planned lunges (negative reinforcement) and verbally affirming everyone (positive reinforcement).
  • The team is making sprints, and you see one of your students struggling to finish. Instead of yelling at him to increase his speed, you run alongside him, ending the sprints together. 
  • You notice one of your students has to work harder to keep up with the rest of the team. You verbally affirm her, “I’m proud of you. I’ve noticed that you never give up, even when it means you finish later than the others.”
  • One of your soccer players has been working on ball control. As you see them improve, you verbally affirm, “You’re doing a great job keeping the ball close to your body! I can see a big improvement. Can you feel the difference?” 

Positive Reinforcement Examples With Neighbors

  • Your neighbor keeps an eye on your house while you’re on vacation. You express your gratitude and reinforce neighborly behavior by offering to mow their front lawn while you mow yours. 
  • Your neighbor is pruning the bushes that were starting to hang over onto your side of the lawn. You smile and wave, verbally affirming, “The bushes look great!”.  
  • The little girl that lives next door has been learning to look both ways before crossing the street. Next time you see her, smile and verbally affirm, “You are doing a great job staying safe by looking both ways before crossing!” 

5 Videos on Positive Reinforcement

  1. The Movement System breaks down positive and negative reinforcement for coaches, personal trainers, and anyone working in the sports industry. 
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  1. Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore shares how parents can more effectively use positive reinforcement to enforce good behavior. 
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  1. Get a clear idea of positive reinforcement with the MinuteVideos visual depictions of what positive reinforcement is and isn’t. 
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  1. Still unclear on the difference between positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment? Dr. Todd Grande breaks each term down with examples.
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  1. Looking for a movie that gives real-life examples of positive reinforcement? Miracle Worker is an excellent way to look for all the methods we’ve discussed (plus, it’s such an inspiring true story). See if you can pick out positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment in this movie

Quotes About Positive Reinforcement

  1. “Whether at work, home, or at play, knowing how to deliver positive reinforcement enables us to make changes in our environment that we’ve been trying to make or wanting to make for years.” —Aubrey Daniels
  2. “Children decide which role they intend to play in the family, and parents reinforce their decision.” —Rudolf Dreikurs
  3. “When I started running after giving birth to my daughter, I had over 50 pounds to lose. What helped me immensely was constant positive reinforcement. I didn’t think of myself as a fat runner because I knew such negative thinking wouldn’t allow me lose weight.” ——Florence Griffith Joyner
  4. “Instead of making the children do good behaviors by threatening to punish them if they don’t, the teachers watch the children until they spontaneously do a good thing and give them rewards to reinforce the behavior and make them more likely to do that behavior again in the future.” —Temple Grandin
  5. “Positive reinforcement improves behavior, while criticism stabilizes negative behaviors and blocks change.” —Virginia H. Pearce

What Does Operant Conditioning Have to Do With Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a method within operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is the use of rewards or punishment to teach a behavior. 

The whole premise of this method relies on the law of effect, which concludes that if something is desirable, we will repeat the behavior that satisfies us. Conversely, if something is unpleasant, we avoid replicating the behavior that produces discomfort. 

4 Books on Positive Reinforcement

  1. Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement by Aubrey Daniels

Aubrey Daniels believes positive reinforcement gives each person the power to change their behavior. This book applies the principles of behavioral science to the workplace. 

  1. Captivate: The Science of Succeeding with People by Vanessa Van Edwards

Want to learn more about what causes human behavior in the first place? Captivate offers valuable shortcuts, systems, and behavior hacks that will boost your people skills and change how you communicate.

  1. Train Your Dog Positively: Understand Your Dog and Solve Common Behavior Problems Including Separation Anxiety, Excessive Barking, Aggression, Housetraining, Leash Pulling, and More! by Victoria Stilwell

Positive reinforcement helps you understand your dog and then take positive action to train them. 

  1. The Growth Mindset Coach: A Teacher’s Month-by-Month Handbook for Empowering Students to Achieve by Annie Brock

Change the way you teach by shifting towards a growth mindset and encouraging your students to do the same. Annie demonstrates how you can learn the skills and strengths in this handbook. 

Practical Takeaways to Remember About Positive Reinforcement

  • Positive reinforcement is the use of outside stimuli to encourage the desired behavior.
  • Positive reinforcement is an effective tool for coaching, family life, and your various interpersonal relationships.
  • How you approach positive reinforcement will shift how effective it is in the long term. 
  • If you try to use it to manipulate behavior, this creates dependence on positive reinforcement and doesn’t encourage long-term benefits. 
  • Some of the goals of positive reinforcement include building a growth mindset, instilling confidence, increasing motivation, and setting boundaries.
  • Instead of relying entirely on positive reinforcement, use it as a tool alongside other approaches and methods. 

The next step is learning to connect with others and build trust. Vanessa Van Edwards and Dr. Paul Zak talk about the science of connection: Learn How to Build Trust With Anyone and Improve Your Relationships

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