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In Psychology, what is Reinforcement?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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The principle of reinforcement is a psychological concept based on the idea that the consequences of an action will influence future behavior. Rewarding behavior is considered reinforcement, because it teaches the subject that the behavior is desired, and encourages the subject to repeat it. Punishing a behavior, on the other hand, teaches the subject that the behavior is not desired, and should not be repeated. Punishment and reinforcement are an important part of operant conditioning, used in many psychological experiments.

In the case of both reinforcement and punishment, the experimenter makes changes to the environment of the subject. It is important for the researcher to have total control over the environment, as other factors can influence the behavior of the subject, potentially throwing off the operant conditioning. The most successful reinforcement training occurs in a laboratory, which has closed conditions, but reinforcement is also applied in animal training. Many educators use the principle when working with children.

There are actually two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement refers to introducing a new stimulus to the subject's environment in order to reward desired behavior. For example, a child might be given a balloon after behaving well at the dentist, or a rat might learn to press a bar for a treat. Positive reinforcement associates a pleasant outcome with the desired outcome. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, involves removing an unpleasant stimulus from the environment. For example, a mouse entering a cage with an electrified floor would quickly learn to press a button if the current was stopped every time the button was pressed.

Negative reinforcement is used in escape and avoidance conditioning. In escape conditioning, the subject learns to quickly remove him or herself from a situation where the negative stimulus exists, much as people evacuate a building with a screaming fire alarm. Avoidance conditioning involves learning to avoid the potentially unpleasant situation altogether, and the most classic example of avoidance conditioning is eating when you expect to be hungry, to avoid the unpleasant sensation of hunger.

Likewise, punishment is divided into positive and negative aspects. In a positive punishment situation, something unpleasant is introduced the the environment, such as a spanking for a misbehaving child. Negative punishment removes a pleasant thing from the environment, much as a parent might take ice cream away from a screaming child. Generally, punishment is not deemed as effective as reinforcement in teaching behaviors, as it can be confusing to the subject when not applied correctly.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a TheHealthBoard researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By seag47 — On May 24, 2012

Psychological reinforcement is kind of related to structural reinforcement, when you think about it. When we are training someone or something to act a certain way for a reward, we are securing their behavior. We are adding strength to their structure of behavior, and we are building their methods of action.

Just as a building is reinforced in order to keep it sturdy and constant, so is a person's behavior reinforced to maintain a certain pattern. The trainer provides support to a way of reacting and doing things so that the person learns that this is the best way of acting.

By Oceana — On May 23, 2012

@kylee07drg – Bless his heart! That is an extreme type of negative reinforcement, but it was effective.

Dogs respond really well to positive reinforcement. I'm sure you would have used this type if you had been given a say in the matter.

I used treats to train my dog to obey certain commands. He learned how to sit on command rather quickly. For the longest time after his training sessions, he would drool whenever I told him to sit, because he expected a treat.

After the initial training, I had to vary up the times I gave him a reward for obeying. If I had given him a treat every time he sat for me, then he would have gotten fat. I think not knowing whether or not he will receive a reward keeps things interesting for him.

By lighth0se33 — On May 23, 2012

I think that positive reinforcement works best when it comes to teaching children how to behave. If you do negative reinforcement all the time, you could end up with a bitter child who could rebel in the future.

If you give rewards for good behavior, then the kid has something to look forward to. If you take good things away for bad behavior, then the kid only has something to avoid. Kids need something to anticipate and work toward.

My sister-in-law only uses negative reinforcement on her child, and he is still a whiny brat. He cries and screams when he doesn't get his way, and taking away his snacks and toys only angers him further.

By kylee07drg — On May 22, 2012

My dog just received some negative reinforcement, but it was totally unintentional. I had been trying for months to train him to stay away from the road and keep him from going to the neighbor's house across the street, but nothing seemed to be working.

We just got new neighbors, and they brought their dogs with them. They keep them chained, and one of them is aggressive. My dog went over there, and their dog attacked him, bruising him and hurting him rather badly.

He is okay, but he is mentally shaken. Now, he will not even go out into the front yard. He shakes with fear when he hears that dog barking, and he would rather stay as close to the house as possible than venture out near the road.

He knows that removing himself from the vicinity of the neighbor's house will keep the pain from occurring again. He avoids going anywhere near the road. Though I hate how it was accomplished, I am glad about the results.

By youngsothy — On Nov 25, 2008

How can we provide the positive reinforcement?

By anon18768 — On Sep 29, 2008

what problems are associated with using reinforcement and punishment (i.e., when they don't work)? etc..

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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