The main difference between reinforcement and punishment is that reinforcement makes a target behavior more likely to happen again while punishment makes the behavior less likely to happen again.
Reinforcement and punishment are often used as parenting tools to modify children’s behavior. Let’s review the difference between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and the difference in outcomes between them.
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The Difference Between Positive And Negative Reinforcement
In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is the introduction of a favorable condition that will make the desired behavior more likely to happen, continue or strengthen in the future1.
Because the favorable condition acts as a reward, reinforcement is a reward-based operant conditioning.
There are two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
These two types of reinforcement can be confusing because the technical terms used in psychology is often misrepresented in pop culture.
As technical parlance, positive refers to adding a factor while negative refers to removing a factor.
But positive and negative do not represent the quality of the factor being added or removed. That factor can be pleasant or unpleasant.
For instance, positive can be adding something unpleasant resulting in unpleasant feelings, while negative can be removing something unpleasant resulting in pleasant feelings.
So, remember that positive and negative refer to adding and removing something, not to the quality of the added/removed factor or the resulted feelings.
Related: Classical Vs Operant Conditioning
The 2 types of reinforcement are:
- Positive reinforcement – adding a factor to increase a behavior
- Negative reinforcement – removing a factor to increase a behavior
Positive reinforcement is adding a pleasant stimulus to enhance a behavior. Here are some positive reinforcement examples.
|Positive Reinforcement Examples||Pleasant Stimulus||Desired Behavior|
|A mother gives her daughter a toy for doing homework.||toy||do homework|
|A father praises his son for practicing soccer.||praise||practice soccer|
Negative reinforcement is removing an aversive stimulus to enhance a behavior. Here are some negative reinforcement examples.
|Negative Reinforcement Examples||Aversive Stimulus||Desired Behavior|
|To stop his mother’s nagging, Alex does his chores.||nagging||do chores|
|To remove the bad smell from her body, Erin takes a shower.||bad smell||take a shower|
Positive Punishment vs Negative Punishment
While the goal of reinforcement is to reinforce the desired behavior, the goal of punishment is to make an undesired behavior less likely to happen, continue or strengthen in the future.
As with reinforcement, the technical meanings of positive and negative punishment refer to adding or removing a factor to obtain the results.
They do not refer to the quality or impact of the punishment.
The 2 types of punishment are:
- Positive punishment – adding a factor to decrease a behavior
- Negative punishment – removing a factor to decrease a behavior
Positive punishment is adding an aversive stimulus to deter a behavior.
|Positive Punishment Examples||Aversive Stimulus||Undesired Behavior|
|Mom gives Mag additional chores for lying.||additional chores||lying|
|Jon was assigned extra homework because he was late to school.||extra homework||be late for school|
Negative punishment is removing a pleasant stimulus to deter a behavior.
|Negative Punishment Examples||Pleasant Stimulus||Undesired Behavior|
|Mary’s tv time was cut by 20 minutes because she did not listen to her Mom.||tv time||did not listen|
|Jack was grounded for talking back.||go out||talk back|
Both reinforcement and punishment can modify behavior. The difference between them is that reinforcement aims to increase target behavior while punishment aims to decrease behavior.
These definitions differ from the way we use it in daily life. Normally, we use “reinforce” in a speech to mean “emphasize”, while “punish” to mean “hurting”.
Here are the definitions and difference of reinforcement and punishment in psychology:
|Add / Remove||Stimulus||Behavior|
|Positive Reinforcement||add||pleasant||enhance desired|
|Negative Reinforcement||remove||aversive||enhance desired|
|Positive Punishment||add||aversive||deter undesired|
|Negative Punishment||remove||pleasant||deter undesired|
Often times, decreasing an undesired behavior can also be achieved by increasing another desired behavior.
For example, both punishing for being late for school and rewarding for being on time can incentivize a child to be on time.
However, parents should also be careful not to overuse reinforcements because too much of a good thing can be a bad thing.
Schedules of Reinforcement
Reinforcement and punishment are usually applied more than once to establish a new behavior. When and how stimuli are applied are called schedules of reinforcement2.
There are 4 types of simple schedules:
- Fixed Interval Schedule (FI) – reinforcer is applied at a fixed amount of time from the previous reinforcement.
- Fixed Ratio Schedule (FR) – reinforcer is applier after a fixed number of responses has been made.
- Variable Interval Schedule (VI) – reinforcer is applied at a variable amount of time from the previous reinforcement.
- Variable Ratio Schedule (VR) – reinforcer is applier after a variable number of responses has been made.
Different types of reinforcing schedules generate different results. Among the four simple schedules, variable ratio schedule generates responses that are most resistant to extinction.
- 1.Mowrer OH. Learning Theory and Behavior. John Wiley & Sons Inc; 1960. doi:10.1037/10802-000
- 2.Schoenfeld W, Cumming W, Hearst E. ON THE CLASSIFICATION OF REINFORCEMENT SCHEDULES. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1956;42(8):563-570. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16589906.