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Reinforcement generally refers to the increase or strengthening of a particular response following the delivery or removal of a stimulus or event. Given that this is perhaps the most fundamental process in operant learning theory, it is critical to understand the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. Simply stated, positive reinforcement involves the presentation or delivery of something "positive," and negative reinforcement involves the removal, reduction, or termination of something "negative." It is important to note that both processes have the same effect; that is, they both strengthen or reinforce particular behaviors. This is a critical point, given that negative reinforcement is often mistakenly equated with punishment.

More specifically, positive reinforcement is a process in which a stimulus is presented following a particular behavior, thereby strengthening that behavior. The stimulus is referred to as a "reinforcer" and is roughly synonymous with the word "reward." The following is a simple example of positive reinforcement: Clarice's teacher provided lavish praise (a positive reinforcer) after Clarice used the word "please." Clarice's use of this word was positively reinforced; thus, she will be more likely to say "please" in the future.

Negative reinforcement is a process that involves the removal or reduction of a negative or unwanted stimulus after a behavior occurs, thereby strengthening that behavior. Negative reinforcement involves responding to "escape" from an annoying or aversive stimulus (i.e., a negative reinforcer or "punisher").

The following example demonstrates how Adam's gift-giving behavior was negatively reinforced: Adam's angry girlfriend, Holly, was not speaking to him. To escape this aversive and unpleasant situation, Adam gave Holly a bouquet of roses. The act of giving roses led to the removal of an unwanted and aversive situation (i.e., Holly began speaking to him again); thus, Adam's behavior was negatively reinforced. As a result, Adam will be more likely to give roses to his angry girlfriend in the future.


Chiesa, M. Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science. Boston, MA: Authors Cooperative, 1994.

Iwata, Brian. "Negative Reinforcement in Applied Behavior Analysis: An Emerging Technology." Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 20 (1987):361-378.

Martin, Gary, and Joseph Pear. Behavior Modification: What It Is and How to Do It, 6th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.

Skinner, B. F. Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan, 1953.

Skinner, B. F. Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969.

Laurie A. Greco

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