Negative Or Positive Reinforcement: Which Is Better?

Negative reinforcement vs. positive reinforcement

Most people think that positive reinforcement means to lavish praise or encouragement, and that is a good part of its essence, but not all of it. What is negative reinforcement, then? Is that about withholding praise? Scolding? Admonishing?

Positive reinforcement is actually something we’re all pretty familiar with. When you were a kid, did you get a weekly allowance for doing chores? When you do well at your job, do you get raises, good reviews, or small perks? Reinforcing a child’s good behavior with positive outcomes (praise or rewards) will certainly help that child repeat the behavior. Continuing to be on time at work helps to increase the chances of receiving a raise or recognition. This is positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is a bit more nuanced. It involves the removal of a negative condition, or aversive stimulus, in order to strengthen a positive behavior or outcome. Where positive reinforcement is about adding something (positive), negative reinforcement is about detracting something (negative) to increase the likelihood of a desired outcome.

So, depending on the situation, one type of reinforcement may achieve greater results than the other.

What is reinforcement?

The famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner (1904–1990) is known for a few things in the world of psychology, and chief among them is the idea of reinforcement, which he describes as an event that strengthens a behavior.

The two types of reinforcement he identified were, of course, positive reinforcement (a behavior that is strengthened by something like praise or reward) and negative reinforcement (a behavior that is strengthened by the removal of unfavorable outcomes). Both of these are part of something he called operant conditioning, which is basically learning through both punishment and reward; an association is made between a particular behavior and its consequence.

Think of a dog learning to sit in anticipation of a doggie treat, or, conversely, learning to go outside when nature calls because he was previously scolded for peeing on the rug.

Skinner’s work was based on the foundation of the “law of effect,” which theorized that actions followed by negative or undesirable outcomes, are less likely to be repeated, while the opposite is true of those followed by positive or desirable outcomes.

So, does that mean negative reinforcement is more effective than positive reinforcement? Well, there’s actually some other factors to consider . . . .

What is positive and negative punishment?

Punishment is part of the reinforcement application. If a child runs off to play before doing his chores on Saturday morning, a positive punishment might be the addition of more chores. (That doesn’t sound very positive, does it?) A negative punishment is the removal of a reinforcing item, such as afternoon cartoons. This may help the child remember next Saturday to do his chores first.

For adults, it may be the reduced likelihood of a raise for someone who is habitually late (negative punishment), or maybe they are given the “latecomer’s task” of cleaning up the kitchen after the coffee rush (positive punishment).

So, is it a fine line between punishments and reinforcement? Do they work hand-in-hand?

Here’s the difference: reinforcement results in a (good) behavior increasing; punishment results in the (bad) behavior decreasing. Sometimes, you may see results using one type of punishment and reinforcement, and other times you will see better results using the other type. It’s a bit of a trial-and-error process to find the right mix.

So, which type of reinforcement is right for you?

Do you need help achieving a goal? Maybe you need motivation to get to work on time each day, or to lose that 20 pounds you’ve been complaining about? What about training the dog? Well, some may require a little positivity to get the job done, and others may benefit from a more negative eye.

As you can see, there’s not a clear-cut answer as to whether positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement is definitively better. It all depends on the situation and the personality of the person receiving the reinforcement (or punishment). But, you can learn more about which type of reinforcement works best for you. Take our Negative or Positive Reinforcement quiz below to see which type will motivate you to achieve your goals.

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