What Is Positive Or Negative Reinforcement In Psychology?

Two of the most important concepts in behavioral psychology, explained in all its details.

BF Skinner, one of the key theorists of the behaviorist orientation, defined reinforcement as a type of learning based on the association of a behavior with the consequences derived from it, which increase or decrease the probability that it will be performed again. When they are negative we speak of punishment, and when they are positive of reinforcement.

Within reinforcement learning we distinguish two types of consequence: positive and negative reinforcement. While positive reinforcement is given when the behavior leads to the obtaining of a reward, negative reinforcement consists of the avoidance or withdrawal of an aversive stimulus. Let’s see the main characteristics of both procedures.

Reinforcement and operant conditioning

The concepts “positive reinforcement” and “negative reinforcement” are framed in the paradigm of instrumental or operant conditioning. Unlike classical or Pavlovian conditioning, in which the association between a stimulus and a response is learned, in the instrumental the subject associates the performance of a behavior with certain consequences.

Operant conditioning arose from the work of  behaviorists Edward Thorndike, who studied the process by which cats managed to escape from “problem boxes,” and Burrhus F. Skinner, who systematically described the characteristics of this learning procedure and what It was applied to various fields, especially education.

Skinner distinguished three types of instrumental learning : punishment, which consists of the appearance of an aversive stimulus after the performance of the behavior, omission, in which the response is associated with the absence of reward, and reinforcement, in which behavior is rewarded. Within this procedure we find positive and negative reinforcement.

Within the framework of operant conditioning, the consequences of behavior can be positive or negative for the person who receives them; However, this differentiation is not what separates positive from negative reinforcement, but rather that when the behavior has appetitive consequences we speak of reinforcement, and of punishment when they are aversive.

When we refer to reinforcement or punishment, the terms “positive” and “negative” do not refer to the pleasantness of the consequence, but rather to the appearance or disappearance of a certain stimulus : in positive reinforcement, we learn that a reward will be obtained if something is done, and on the negative that an unpleasant stimulus will be avoided or removed.

What is positive reinforcement?

In positive reinforcement learning, the performance of a behavior is associated with obtaining a pleasant consequence. This does not have to be an object, not even tangible ; Food, substances, a smile, a verbal message or the appearance of a pleasant emotion are likely to be understood as positive reinforcement in many contexts.

A father who congratulates his young daughter every time she uses the toilet correctly strengthens positive reinforcement learning; The same thing happens when a company gives financial bonuses to its most productive workers, and even when we get a bag of potato chips after putting a coin in a vending machine.

The concept “positive reinforcement” refers to the reward that follows the behavior, while positive reinforcement is the procedure by which the learner makes the association. However, the terms “reinforcement” and “reinforcement” are often used interchangeably, probably because there is no such distinction in English.

From a technical point of view we can say that in positive reinforcement there is a positive contingency between a specific response and an appetitive stimulus. The awareness of this contingency motivates the subject to execute the behavior in order to obtain the reward (or reinforcement).

Defining negative reinforcement

Unlike what happens in the positive, in the negative reinforcement the instrumental response entails the disappearance of an aversive stimulus, that is, an object or situation that motivates the subject to escape or to try not to come into contact with it.

In behavioral terms, in this procedure the reinforcement is the disappearance or non-appearance of the aversive stimulation. As we have previously stated, the word “negative” refers to the fact that the reward does not consist in obtaining a stimulus but in its absence.

This type of learning is divided into two procedures: escape training and avoidance training. In the negative reinforcement of avoidance, the behavior prevents the appearance of the aversive stimulus; for example, when an agoraphobic person avoids using public transport to avoid the anxiety that this supposes, it is being negatively reinforced.

By contrast, escape consists of the disappearance of an aversive stimulus that is present before the subject executes the behavior. Some examples of escape negative reinforcement include an alarm clock stopping at the press of a button, a mother buying her child a request to stop crying, or taking a pain reliever to relieve pain.

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