What Is Negative Reinforcement: Definition, How It Works And Examples

What is negative reinforcement? It is an effective way to prevent an undesirable outcome. It works by strengthening the situation or circumstances before something negative may happen. In other words, it’s the act of adding something or taking it away to change predictable results.

It may be as simple as bringing a raincoat on a hike in the woods to prevent the effects of a downpour or taking a tablet before dinner to avoid the impact of a possible allergic reaction.

The easiest way to consider negative reinforcement is to think of something you take away from a situation to avoid a problematic or negative result. It’s a useful way to improve specific behavior and actions from other people by removing or avoiding certain stimuli that can trigger a reaction.

Employers, schools, and other organizations may use negative reinforcement as a means of behavior modification. To better understand the powerful impact, there are many examples of negative reinforcement to consider in daily life.

What is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement works much like negative reinforcement, only in reverse. It focuses on accomplishing a desired goal or behavior through adding an item to the situation – such as a reward or beneficial item. 

An example of an item being provided as an act of positive reinforcement includes offering an incentive, such as money, gifts, or positive comments and praise. Positive reinforcement may also be seen as a way to encourage certain behavior or an outcome.

It’s often used in the form of a bonus payment for performance at work, as a form of reward by parents to improve their children’s behavior, or as an incentive to work more hours or commit for a specified time in the future for a project.

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The Difference Between Negative and Positive Reinforcement

Applying either positive or negative reinforcement is used with the same goal: to modify and promote behavior and action. Both techniques are forms of behavior reinforcement to achieve good behavior. At the same time, each method works towards the same outcome.

The goal is to reinforce a specific pattern or outcome that’s desired – whether it is just once or on an ongoing basis. In theory, the idea is to frame a situation or set it up in advance so that no punishment or disciplinary action is required following a negative behavior or action.

How Effective is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is effective to a degree, though some may find other methods more impactful to gain the desired outcome more often.

In some cases, where the same process of taking something away is done to produce a favorable situation, it may prove to be a weak method over time, as some individuals may find alternative ways to respond unfavorably.

For example, removing certain items from a classroom may encourage students to use their imagination for a specific project.

However, the same technique of taking away certain stimuli may decrease the positive effects of students’ performance in other ways.

Negative reinforcement is most effective when it is done immediately before the offending behavior is expected to occur to avoid it altogether. If the stimulus is altered too far in advance, it will not result in the same reinforcing effect and may result in a more unpleasant outcome.

While negative reinforcement can produce the results teachers, parents, and employers are looking for, and it’s not highly recommended in a classroom setting. Some experts suggest positive reinforcement for school, as offering an incentive offers a consistently better outcome than negative reinforcement or the act of taking something away.

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Behavioral Conditioning and Negative Reinforcement

B.F. Skinner is a psychologist who is well known for his behavioral studies and conditioning. His studies involved conducting experiments where small animals would be placed in a box or chamber, where unwanted or unpleasant stimuli were.

The rat would eventually run into a lever, which effectively stopped the offending situation. When the unpleasant current or shock would return, the rat immediately ended its flow by switching off the lever. Skinner used positive reinforcement to achieve behavioral changes, which means a condition or ‘perk’ is added to produce the desired result.

Suppose the experiment’s goal was to reinforce behavior or physical action using negative reinforcement. In that case, this means that the item or condition usually present in this scenario would need to be eradicated to observe any changes to the subject’s behavior as a result of taking away something.

The electric current, in this experiment, became the negative reinforcer. By removing the unpleasant current, the rat was able to understand the impact of the lever, which is also referred to as operant conditioning.

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Negative Reinforcement Examples in Society

Many examples of negative reinforcement are used in everyday life that impacts everyone using psychology by reinforcing or preventing a specific type of behavior.

Often, these behaviors are shaped from childhood to reinforce certain behaviors and actions while preventing others. A school teacher may remove distracting toys in a classroom so that students are more likely to focus on a lesson or participate in a discussion.

This method avoids dealing with the consequences of unwanted behavior, such as students playing with toys or engaging in other distracting activities, by simply removing the ability to start in the first place.

If a room is clear of any items to distract someone during a job interview, the person or applicant could respond in a way that is more clear without any stimulus that could negatively impact the outcome.

Certain public or private spaces may often be designed with minimalistic features that may extract desired behavior in a child or an adult. Positive and negative reinforcement methods are practiced in many ways, which may be subtle or obvious. Suppose a public space doesn’t contain any benches or areas to sit in.

In that case, the lack of accommodation will encourage people to leave, resulting in less loitering, especially if this outcome is desired. This example of negative reinforcement minimizes the likelihood of people lingering in a specific area, which results in the desired behavior modification.

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Punishment Versus Operant Conditioning

There is a distinct difference between using punishment to correct or stop an action or behavior and using negative or positive reinforcement to prevent or modify behavior. Reinforcement and punishment both aim to produce the same response.

Taking away something or removing an object or situation is proactive and becomes the reinforcer to prevent the consequence of an undesirable action. In contrast, punishment follows when an unwanted behavior already occurs to stop or discourage it from happening in the future.

In theory, reinforcement involves avoiding predicting if a child or adult will become agitated, distracted, or exhibit responsible behavior, such as removing or modifying the space or situation to encourage or reinforce desired behavior.

Punishments tend to be harsh, and their use may influence behavior to a degree, though not in the best way. In many cases, the fear of punishment or its experience may be avoided only after it happens.

Punishment involves adding an unpleasant stimulus that discourages behavior in the present and stops its recurrence in the future. Such as grounding a child, adding more chores to their list of duties at home, or detention at school.

On the other hand, conditioning behavior through reinforcement methods ensures that certain ill effects of bad actions can be easier to avoid with some planning and understanding of the people and situations involved.

The Effects of Aversive Stimulus

While positive reinforcement offers an incentive or reward to encourage good behavior, positive punishment involves a penalty or harsh consequence resulting from undesirable action.

While the act of punishment is swift and sometimes severe, often with immediate results, there are some concerns on its impact on mental health and well-being:

  • Punishment focuses primarily on stopping the offending behavior rather than preventing them.
  • The fear of being punished becomes harmful and may result in students or adults avoiding healthy situations and behaviors within their regular stimulus.
  • Receiving a punishment can be humiliating and could cause a person to develop anger, resentment, and behavior that could escalate to violence or severe actions.
  • Punishing someone doesn’t prevent the behavior from happening again, and it may cause resentment and hurt that may fuel negative actions later.

When a person endures being punished, they may find other ways to commit the offensive behavior without being reprimanded, which means the effect of punishment is often short-lived and temporary. The consequence of their action may be a deterrent for a while, though it may increase the likelihood of anger and aversive activity in the future.

Use Negative Reinforcement to Avoid Punishment

When you use negative reinforcement, there is a lower incidence of disciplinary action due to operant conditioning. While some people view reinforcement and punishment as similar, the preventative measure of taking away or adding something, such as positive and negative reinforcement, can often condition a person’s behavior without their explicit knowledge.

Positive reinforcement is frequently the method of choice and is usually offered as medical advice for healthy behavioral conditioning in the classroom or in life.

The act of punishment, whether something is taken away (negative punishment) or added (positive punishment), this aversive environment does little to create long-term behaviors that are desirable.

Instead, it handles a difficult situation with an immediate response. However, in the long-term, a person will likely resume their bad behavior. For example, it may be more challenging to reinforce good results in the future.

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Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, and Self Improvement

There are many examples of negative reinforcement that may benefit personal lives, whether this preventative action is intentional or not.

For example, a student who wants to achieve a high grade, but doesn’t like to study, may be encouraged to take their schoolwork more seriously with a low or failing grade. The low mark is an example of a negative reinforcer that pushes the individual to work harder towards their desired grade.

A person who needs to modify their diet for health reasons may find that having too many desserts or sugary foods distracts their success, especially if they struggle with self-control.

They can play a role in their own operant conditioning, or a member of their household may do the same thing but removing all the unhealthy snacks as a form of negative reinforcement. Adding a reward or an incentive to encourage the same outcome would be a positive reinforcement.

These examples of using negative and positive reinforcement offer a way to modify personal behavior for self-improvement and better health, school, work, and other vital matters in life.

It’s a useful approach in parent and child relationships, as the act of reinforcement methods creates an environment that will encourage better behavior, actions, and practices that produce ideal results.

While reinforcer methods may vary in their ability to produce immediate results, they are often key to shaping a better environment for good behavior while avoiding the need for punishment and other aversive stimuli.

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Summary: What is Negative Reinforcement and The Benefits of Operant Conditioning

Most people avoid punishment and prefer creating a situation that creates and encourages better action or behavior. Results are suitable for the people affected and impacted by the potential of good and negative actions.

Behavior negative reinforcement offers a way to effectively prevent punishment in many cases and instead create a positive space for children and adults alike.

While many operant conditioning methods are used in the classroom, some experts suggest that positive reinforcement may be an excellent choice for children, students, and in some workplace scenarios.

Reinforcing good actions and behaviors is easier to encourage than many people may think. Knowing how to use negative and positive reinforcement is vital to changing direction towards a more forward-thinking, positive environment.

It’s a powerful way to influence not only one or a few people but large groups of students, families, and workplace communities. Understanding negative reinforcement and the various techniques associated with modifying behavior and action is essential to creating a healthier, more productive, and enjoyable place for everyone.

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