Behavior Analysis

The Truth About Negative Reinforcement

When you hear the term Negative Reinforcement, what do you think? What does that mean to you?

Does the term ‘negative’ immediately make you think ‘bad?’ If it does, you’re definitely NOT alone.

Negative Reinforcement is often used as a way to say that ‘bad’ behavior is being reinforced:

“We have to make sure we’re not negatively reinforcing that…”

“He’s being negatively reinforced…”

When we know we are giving attention, or some kind of reinforcement to inappropriate behavior, we are usually not providing negative reinforcement… we’re providing positive reinforcement of an inappropriate behavior. We are giving something (usually our attention) that is increasing the behavior.

So let’s talk about the truth about Negative Reinforcement.

Knowing correct terms is important. When we have a clear understanding of terms, we have a clearer understanding of behavior, and how our behavior can impact others.

First: Reinforcement is anything that increases the future occurrence of behavior.

On the flip side, Punishment is anything that decreases the future occurrence of behavior (punishment doesn’t necessarily have to be bad, or aversive…it’s just a word in this case).

There are two types of Reinforcement, and two types of Punishment, and I think this is where it can get a little confusing. Those two types are: Positive and Negative.

But don’t think of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ as meaning ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ They don’t mean that at all. Instead:

Positive = adding something

Negative = removing something

Knowing that, when we say ‘Positive Reinforcement’ we’re saying: something was given/added that increases the future occurrence of behavior. Like praise (good job!), or a token reward, or getting a paycheck. You can read more about Positive Reinforcement HERE.

When we say ‘Negative Reinforcement’ we’re saying: something was removed or taken away that increases the future occurrence of behavior. Think RELIEF. Whatever behavior is being done, it’s providing relief by removing something unwanted, and so you are more likely to engage in that behavior again when wanting to remove something unwanted.

Think about when you have a headache. Or stomachache. You take some medicine, your aches go away. You were relieved of them. You are more likely to take medicine in the future when you don’t feel well. Your behavior of taking medicine when you don’t feel well was negatively reinforced.

Does that make sense? Here’s another example:

Think about when you get in your car and you start driving. You haven’t buckled in yet, so your car starts that annoying beeping. To make the beeping go away, you buckle in. The beeping stops, and you are relieved from it. You are more likely to buckle in when you get in the car so that you don’t have to hear that annoying beeping. The removal of the beeping noise was negatively reinforcing.

It’s hard to think of an example of when we might actively provide negative reinforcement to our children… since negative reinforcement generally means RELIEF.

Let me try… think of when your child hurts herself, and she comes running to you, and you make the hurt go away. She’s more likely to come running to you again when she gets hurt, since doing that before relieved her of the pain and made her feel better.

Does that make sense? Knowing what negative reinforcement means, could you think of any other examples?

And I guarantee when you hear it used incorrectly, you’re going to be itching to talk about what it really means, haha. 😉