Negative reinforcement (A complete guide)

negative reinforcement?

Behavioral psychology is a branch of psychology specializing in shaping behaviors.

Negative reinforcement is a concept frequently described in behavioral psychology.

Negative reinforcement occurs when something is taken away in response to a person’s behavior, creating an overall favorable outcome.

More specifically, a negative or aversive stimulus is taken away from a situation, creating a better outcome.  

In this blog piece we will discuss what negative reinforcement is, what it is used for, when it is most effective, provide specific examples of negative reinforcement, and clarify common misconceptions about it. 

What is negative reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is a concept of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is the process of shaping behaviors by reinforcing specific behaviors through consequences.

For example, when you carry out a certain behavior, a certain consequence will occur.

The thought is that if the consequence after the behavior leads to a good result, an individual will want to continue carrying out that behavior.

If the consequence following the behavior is bad, an individual will want to stop carrying out that behavior.

After you reinforce the behavior with the consequence a number of times, it is thought that the behavior will become innate and will shape your future behaviors.

You will perform a certain behavior to remove something and get a favorable outcome, or will not perform a certain behavior to avoid an unfavorable outcome.

Negative reinforcement (A complete guide)

Negative reinforcement specifically is when something is taken away in response to a person’s behavior to create a favorable outcome.

Negative reinforcement is best understood through examples. An example of negative reinforcement is when you are in a car.

There is another car in front of you and you want that car in front of you to move out of the way.

This is because the car is blocking you and you are very annoyed.

You decide to honk your horn and the car moves away. The car moving away is a favorable outcome for you.

You realize that honking your horn (a behavior), can cause the car moving away (a favorable outcome). After this happens a few times, you are able to program a new behavior.

Going forward, whenever there is an annoying car in front of you, you will honk your horn to remove it.

This shows that if an annoying stimulus is removed from the environment, by one of your behaviors, the future probability of this behavior increases.  

Negative reinforcement (A complete guide)

Image from: Busy Analytical Bee Great work you can go: negative reinforcement

What is negative reinforcement used for? 

Negative reinforcement, like most concepts in behavioral psychology, helps modify behaviors.

It helps teach certain behaviors. Negative reinforcement specifically is used to strengthen behaviors.

Let’s say you really want to teach your child that you cannot leave the dinner table without eating the vegetables on the dinner plate first.

Each night at dinner, when your child has not touched their vegetables and asks to leave the dinner table, you repeatedly tell them that they can only leave the dinner table once they eat their vegetables.

Following this explanation, the child will have to make a decision about their behavior.

Will they eat the vegetables and be allowed to leave the dinner table, or will they not eat their vegetable and have to stay at the dinner table?

Eventually the child will try to test the theory and eat their vegetables. Because they ate their vegetables they will be allowed to leave the dinner table.

Leaving the dinner table is a favorable outcome for the child since this is what they wanted all along.

After many nights of this, they realize that it is their own behavior of eating their vegetables, that allows for this favorable outcome of them leaving the dinner to occur.

When this happens enough times, their behavior of eating their vegetables will strengthen because at this point they will inherently know that doing so will allow them to leave the dinner table. 

When is negative reinforcement most effective?

Now that we understand that negative reinforcement helps strengthen behaviors, we can begin to understand when negative reinforcement is most effective.

Negative reinforcement is most effective when the desired outcome occurs right after the behavior is carried out.

For example, using the scenario above, your child asks to leave the dinner table and you tell them they have to eat their vegetables before they can do so.

Your child eats their vegetables. How much time elapses between your child eating their vegetables and you allowing them to leave the dinner table is important.

If too much time elapses between the behavior (eating vegetables) and desired outcome (leaving the dinner table), the association between the behavior and desired outcome is not as strong.

This will likely not strengthen the behavior as well. If, however, the time elapsed between the behavior (eating vegetables) and desired outcome (leaving the dinner table) is shorter, the association between the two will be stronger.

Therefore, the behavior of the child eating their vegetables will more likely become strengthened and executed. 

The schedule of reinforcement is also important.

If the behavior is being continuously reinforced, meaning every time the child eats their vegetable they are allowed to leave the dinner table, the association between eating vegetables and leaving the dinner table becomes stronger.

The behavior is therefore strengthened. This continuous reinforcement is best for learning new behaviors.

Negative reinforcement (A complete guide)

What are specific examples of negative reinforcement?

Again, the topic of negative reinforcement can be quite confusing.

Therefore, the best way to explain this topic is through real life examples.

Below you will find common examples in which the behavior and the outcome will be clarified:

Example #1: 

An individual comes home from work and they smell bad

Behavior: The individual decides to take a shower

Outcome: They smell much better after the shower

Future: The individual is more likely to take a shower when coming home from work 

Again, you can see that there is a behavior, which is taking a shower, and a favored outcome, which is smelling better. By performing the behavior, the aversive stimulus which is smelling poorly is taken away. Because the aversive stimulus is taken away, a more favorable outcome occurs. The individual begins to associate showering with decreased smell. The individual is more likely to perform this behavior in future situations in which they would like the smell to go away. 

Negative reinforcement (A complete guide)

Example #2: 

A college student is studying in the library and it is very noisy

Behavior: The college student puts on headphones

Outcome: The college student is no longer able to hear the noise

Future: The college student is more likely to put on headphones when they are in a noisy library

Again, you can see that there is a behavior, which is putting on headphones, and a favored outcome, which is reducing the noise. By performing the behavior, the aversive stimulus which is noise, is taken away. Because the aversive stimulus is taken away, a more favorable outcome occurs. The college student begins to associate putting on headphones with decreased noise. The college student is now more likely to perform this behavior in future situations in which they would like the noise to go away. 

Example # 3: 

An athlete is doing a really intense workout and gets very dizzy

Behavior: The athlete drinks water 

Outcome: The athlete is no longer dizzy

Future: The athlete is more likely to drink water when they are feeling dizzy

Again, you can see that there is a behavior, which is drinking water, and a favored outcome, which is cessation of dizziness. By performing the behavior, the aversive stimulus which is dizziness, is taken away. Because the aversive stimulus is taken away, a more favorable outcome occurs. The athlete begins to associate drinking water with decreased dizziness. The athlete is now more likely to perform this behavior in future situations in which they would like to stop feeling dizzy. 

What are the common misconceptions about negative reinforcement? 

Many assume that because the term ‘negative’ reinforcement has the word ‘negative’ in it, that it is a bad thing. This is not the case.

The reason this term has the word negative in it can be thought of in terms of mathematics.

In negative reinforcement you are quite literally removing, or subtracting something negative.

You are taking away an aversive stimulus by performing a particular action.

For example, by putting on headphones, you are taking away the noise of the library.

This leads to a favorable outcome. Since the outcome is favorable, the behavior increases. 

Another misconception is that negative reinforcement means punishment. With punishment, however, you want to decrease a particular behavior.

For example, you want to decrease the behavior of your teenager breaking curfew and so therefore you punish them by grounding them.

You hope that by punishing this behavior, you will decrease this very behavior.

In negative reinforcement, however, you are trying to increase the behavior. You are doing so by taking something negative away, to create a more favorable situation.

For example, you are taking away the noise of the library by putting on headphones.

You will likely now increase the behavior of putting on headphones in noisy places since putting on headphones has produced a better scenario for you.  

Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about negative reinforcement:

1.    Is negative reinforcement a bad thing?

Just because negative reinforcement has the word negative in it, does not mean it is a bad thing.

The negative simply means that you are subtracting or taking an aversive stimulus away by performing a particular action. 

2.    Is negative reinforcement the same thing as punishment?

Negative reinforcement is not the same thing as punishment. The goal in negative reinforcement is to increase a behavior.

You perform a behavior and an aversive stimulus goes away. You associate that behavior with a favorable outcome.

You are likely to increase that behavior. The goal in punishment is to decrease a behavior.

You perform a behavior and are punished for it.

You associate the behavior with an unfavorable outcome You are likely to decrease that behavior.

3.    Is negative reinforcement only just for children?

Negative reinforcement is not just for shaping the behaviors of children.

It can be implemented for anyone. It can also be implemented in dog training or other animal training. 

Want to learn more about negative reinforcement?

Check out this book!

The Science of Consequences

This book describes the actual science of consequences and how these consequences can affect our brains.

Negative reinforcement is all about the consequence when you take away an aversive stimulus by performing a particular action.

This book can help understand what this behavior and consequence relationship does to the brain. 

Have more questions about negative reinforcement? Post them below!

Resources

Negative Reinforcement Educate Autism 2018

How negative reinforcement works Verywellmind 2019

Image from: Great work you can go: negative reinforcement 2018

The difference between positive and negative reinforcement bcotb 2013

Negative reinforcement (A complete guide)

Juanita Agboola

Juanita Agboola is the editor in chief of HFNE and an expert in mental health online. She has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 2012. All Guides are reviewed by our editorial team which constitutes various clinical psychologists, PhD and PsyD colleagues.