Negative reinforcement encourages specific behaviors by removing or avoiding negative consequences or stimuli. It is different than punishment, which aims to discourage a specific behavior.

Negative reinforcement has become a popular way of encouraging good behavior at school. Keep reading to learn more about how it works and how it differs from positive reinforcement and punishment.

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People can use negative reinforcement to encourage a particular behavior.

Negative reinforcement is the encouragement of certain behaviors by removing or avoiding a negative outcome or stimuli. People typically use this technique to help children learn good patterns of behavior, but it can also play a role in training animals and pets.

Negative reinforcement is part of operant conditioning, which was a theory of learning that B. F. Skinner developed in the 1930s.

Operant conditioning centers on the idea of reinforcement. Reinforcing behaviors makes them more likely to occur again. Behaviors without reinforcement, according to operant conditioning, will not reoccur.

Negative reinforcement allows the person or animal to remove the negative stimuli in exchange for a reward.

Skinner demonstrated his operant conditioning theory by observing animals in what researchers came to call a Skinner box. The box may, for example, contain a lever or button that an animal can press for food or water. However, if the animal tries to get the food by simply pushing the button, it will receive a small but uncomfortable electric shock.

Instead, the animal may need to press a second lever to stop the electric current and allow it to get the food without the electric shock. Over time, the animal will learn to stop the current immediately using the lever.

The same idea can apply in everyday life. For example, if an alarm sounds when a person starts driving without putting their seat belt on, they will quickly learn to put their seat belt on when they get in the car to avoid the unpleasant alarm sound.

It is easy to mistake negative reinforcement for a type of punishment, but there is a fundamental difference between the two. In a sense, they are, in fact, opposites. People design punishments to discourage a particular behavior or type of behavior, but they use negative reinforcement to encourage it.

A punishment could involve removing a reward or applying an unpleasant stimulus. For example, giving an animal a mild electric shock for pressing a lever would discourage this behavior. An example in humans could be grounding a child for breaking a rule.

It is unclear whether negative reinforcements or punishments are more effective in changing behavior patterns. However, some criticisms of using punishments include:

  • Certain behaviors may return when the punishment no longer occurs.
  • Punishments can create anger and other negative feelings, potentially leading to worse problems.
  • A fear of punishment could develop into a fear of other situations relating to the punishment, such as a fear of going to school if that is where punishment occurs.
  • Punishments focus on stopping behaviors rather than teaching good behaviors in their place.

Deciding whether to use punishments or negative reinforcement will depend on the desired change in behavior and the child. For example, using harsh punishments on a child who is prone to anger may worsen the existing issues.

Positive reinforcement involves the use of pleasant stimuli to encourage certain behaviors. It is the opposite face of reinforcement within operant conditioning because it encourages behaviors through reward rather than the removal of something unpleasant.

For example, a researcher may set up a Skinner box so that pressing a lever provides the animal with food. At first, the animal may touch the lever accidentally. But over time, it will learn that there will be a reward for pressing the lever.

An example in children would be giving them money for doing chores around the house.

Some children may respond better to positive reinforcement, whereas others will respond better to negative reinforcement. It is possible to use both forms of reinforcement to influence behavior.

People have long applied operant conditioning to help children and teenagers learn in school. The theory is appealing because it is a simple and effective method of encouraging changes in behavior.

Reinforcement is most effective as a consequence of a behavior. For example, getting a low grade on an exam is a negative reinforcer that encourages pupils to study.

The reinforcement must also be appealing to the pupil. Some children might not care about getting low grades, so they may continue to avoid studying.

It is important to work with pupils to understand what motivates them as individuals before deciding on the best approach for reinforcement. Often, different factors will motivate each pupil. It can, therefore, be helpful to use multiple reward and reinforcement systems. The best methods, or schedules of reinforcement, might also differ depending on the situation.

Continuous reinforcement is useful for teaching a new behavior. It involves using the reinforcer every time a pupil displays the behavior. Once pupils have formed a strong association between the reinforcer and the behavior, it can become less frequent.

Other approaches include fixed interval schedules, where the reinforcer occurs after a certain number of repetitions of the behavior.

Variable interval schedules are particularly useful for reinforcing slow, continual behaviors, for example, teaching children to remain in their seats or talk quietly in the hallway.

Negative reinforcement aims to increase specific behaviors by removing negative consequences or stimuli.

It is part of the operant conditioning theory of learning. This theory also includes positive reinforcement, which increases behaviors through rewards.

Punishments are different because they involve either removing a reward or using an unpleasant outcome to discourage behaviors.

Negative reinforcement can help encourage good behavior in children and teenagers at school, but its effectiveness will depend on the individual.