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Reinforcement vs Punishment Psychology [Examples]

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 future​1​.

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

What is positive and negative reinforcement

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

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

Negative reinforcement is removing an aversive stimulus to enhance a behavior. Here are some negative reinforcement examples.

Negative Reinforcement ExamplesAversive StimulusDesired Behavior
To stop his mother’s nagging, Alex does his chores.naggingdo chores
To remove the bad smell from her body, Erin takes a shower.bad smelltake a shower
Mom gives girl a toy dinosaur - Positive reinforcement examples

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.

What Is Positive And Negative 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

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

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
Boy looks up from homework feeling bored reinforcement versus punishment

Reinforcement vs Punishment

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.

Because of the negative side effects of punishment (in the traditional sense, i.e. introducing unpleasant stimulus), parents should practice positive parenting.

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 reinforcement​2​.

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. 1.
    Mowrer OH. Learning Theory and Behavior. John Wiley & Sons Inc; 1960. doi:10.1037/10802-000
  2. 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.

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