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Reinforcement vs Punishment Psychology [Examples]

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.

Girl peeks at cupcakes - what is the difference between negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement

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.

In technical parlance, positive refers to adding a factor, while negative refers to removing a factor.

However, positive and negative do not represent the quality of the added or removed factor. That factor can be pleasant or unpleasant.

For instance, positive can add 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 resulting feelings.

A young girl being handed a gift.

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 ExamplesPleasant StimulusDesired Behavior
A mother gives her daughter a toy for doing homework.toydo homework
A father praises his son for practicing soccer.praisepractice 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

Difference Between 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.

A young boy washing dishes.

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 ExamplesAversive StimulusUndesired Behavior
Mom gives Mag additional chores for lying.additional choreslying
Jon was assigned extra homework because he was late to school.extra homeworkbe late for school

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment is removing a pleasant stimulus to deter a behavior.

Negative Punishment ExamplesPleasant StimulusUndesired Behavior
Mary’s tv time was cut by 20 minutes because she did not listen to her Mom.tv timedid not listen
Jack was grounded for talking back.go outtalk back
Boy looks up from homework feeling bored reinforcement versus punishment

Reinforcement vs Punishment

Both reinforcement and punishment can modify behavior.

The difference is that reinforcement aims to increase target behavior while punishment aims to decrease behavior.

These definitions differ from the way we use them in daily life.

Normally, we use “reinforce” in a speech to mean “emphasize,” while “punish” means “hurting.”

Here are the definitions and differences of reinforcement and punishment in psychology:

 Add / RemoveStimulusBehavior
Positive Reinforcementaddpleasantenhance desired
Negative Reinforcementremoveaversiveenhance desired
Positive Punishmentaddaversivedeter undesired
Negative Punishmentremovepleasantdeter undesired

Oftentimes, decreasing an undesired behavior can also be achieved by increasing another desired behavior.

For example, punishing for being late for school and rewarding for being on time can both 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 bad.

A family doing laundry together.

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 from the previous reinforcement at a fixed amount of time.
  • 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, the variable ratio schedule generates responses that are most resistant to extinction.

A smiling young boy with a lollipop in his mouth.

References

  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. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16589906.

Updated on September 28th, 2023 by Pamela Li

Pamela Li is an author, Founder, and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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