Tech & Science dictionary

positive reinforcement

[ poz-i-tiv ree-in-fawrs-muhnt ]

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is the act of rewarding a positive behavior in order to encourage it to happen again in the future, as in Getting an A on the test was the positive reinforcement I needed to continue studying.

Positive means favorable or beneficial In psychology, reinforcement means something that strengthens a response to a stimulus. In other words, positive reinforcement is rewarding good behavior (and who doesn’t like that?).

Positive reinforcement is used outside of psychology, as well. You’ll see it in education, animal training, parenting, and even in everyday conversations.

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Related words

💌 Love Letter emoji, good vibes, hugs and kisses, behavioral economics

Where does positive reinforcement come from?

The concept of positive reinforcement is credited to 20th-century behaviorism psychologist B. F. Skinner. As part of his work during the 1930s and 1940s, Skinner considered ways in which behavior could be changed by treating someone differently based on what they did. This idea is known as operant conditioning and is most often associated with Skinner’s theories. Positive reinforcement was one of four techniques that Skinner theorized could be used to alter behavior.

Think about a lab rat in a box with a green button. We want to teach the rat to press the button after hearing a bell. In this scenario, the ringing of a bell is the stimulus, something that will trigger a behavior. When the rat hears the bell, the responses we care about are pressing the green button or not pressing it. The rat pressing the green button is the response we want.

In positive reinforcement, the desired response is encouraged by adding something the rat likes when it performs the response we want. In this case, if the rat presses the green button after hearing the bell, we will give the rat a slice of tasty cheese. If the rat doesn’t press the button, it gets nothing. In positive reinforcement, we never punish the rat for doing unwanted behavior (that would be negative reinforcement).

The idea is that the rat will learn to press that button after hearing a bell because it wants the yummy cheese. Eventually, pressing the bell will become associated with an enjoyable feeling, so the rat will press the button even if not rewarded with cheese.

What about that negative reinforcement we mentioned? In negative reinforcement, an enjoyable thing is taken away in reaction to unwanted behavior. In our example, we would take toys away from our poor rat if it refuses to press that button.

Most people are familiar with both positive and negative reinforcement because their parents most likely used some of both with them. But which is better? We looked at that very question in “Negative Or Positive Reinforcement: Which Is Better?

In your own life, you likely run into examples of positive reinforcement every day. When your teacher rewards the student with the highest grade on a test, that’s positive reinforcement. When you give your dog a tasty treat when she does a trick, that’s positive reinforcement. And when you got a ton of likes and nice comments on that amazing YouTube video you made, that too is positive reinforcement.

Examples of positive reinforcement

The first proud winner of our sticker charts reward system! Positive reinforcement works so well in Squirrels - we love celebrating our achievements #positivebehaviourmanagement #celebratingachievement #winnerwinner #soproud
@AshbridgeMaxy, April 14, 2021
With plenty of positive reinforcement, British dog trainer Victoria Stillwell helps to restore order in homes where pets are creating havoc.
Chuck Barney, The Mercury News, February 22, 2021

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Who uses positive reinforcement?

Many people are fans of positive reinforcement and respond best to this technique of behavior adjustment. Sometimes, people will even try to use it on themselves by only enjoying a reward if they accomplish a goal.

What other words are related to positive reinforcement?

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Note

This is not meant to be a formal definition of positive reinforcement like most terms we define on Dictionary.com, but is rather an informal word summary that hopefully touches upon the key aspects of the meaning and usage of positive reinforcement that will help our users expand their word mastery.