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Negative Reinforcement and Operant Conditioning

Did you know that parents could train their children to act defiant? “Who in their right minds would do that?” you may wonder. Well, many of us actually do. Find out how a lot of parents unknowingly train their children in rebellion using negative reinforcement.

A child is playing with two rubber ducks by the bathtub while sitting inside. Negative reinforcement involves taking a bath in this case.

Behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner, believed that one’s behavior could be increased or decreased in frequency using a stimulus through a process called operant conditioning​1​.

In operant learning, the operant behavior is “controlled” by its consequences​2​.

There are two types of operant conditioning – reinforcement and punishment. The difference between reinforcement and punishment is that the former encourages a behavior to repeat, while the latter discourages it.

There are two forms of reinforcement – positive or negative. Both positive and negative reinforcement can increase target behavior. Positive and negative describe how the stimulus is used to enhance the behavior.

When a stimulus is added to reinforce a specific behavior, positive reinforcement results. When a stimulus is subtracted to reinforce the behavior, negative reinforcement results. Therefore, the word, positive or negative, does not represent the nature or quality of the reinforcement. Instead, they simply describe whether a stimulus is added (positive) or subtracted (negative) to reinforce the desired behavior.

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What Is Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is encouraging a desired behavior to repeat in the future by removing or avoiding an aversive stimulus.

People sometimes associate positive reinforcement with rewards and naturally assume negative reinforcement is the opposite of awards, which is punishment.

But it is not. Negative reinforcement does not mean it is bad or punishing in nature.

Negative reinforcement is not the same as positive punishment or negative punishment. Reinforcement, whether positive or negative, encourages a desirable behavior to repeat. On the other hand, positive / negative punishment discourages an undesired behavior. Reinforcement raises the future frequency of an action, or the likelihood of it being repeated.

“Negative” in Negative Reinforcement

To remember the meaning of negative in negative reinforcement is to think of it as taking away something or something being subtracted to provide a favorable outcome as the consequence.

In negative reinforcement, that favorable outcome is the removal ofre something already present or avoidance of an inevitable aversive situation. The person wants to repeat the target action because they want the consequence to repeat.

Removal and reduction of ongoing stimulation typically produce behavior that is called escape. Postponement and prevention of aversive stimulus produce behavior that is called avoidance​3​.

Boy takes a shower smiling. Taking a shower is negative reinforcement examples. The boy won't smell in class in front of the teacher.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

Taking a shower or a bath is a good example of negative reinforcement. After being out and about all day, you come home in a sweaty shirt. You then take a shower to get rid of the bad smell and the yucky sweat on your bodies.

You like the feeling of freshness and cleanliness after the shower, and therefore, you will likely repeat this action after you come home next time.

Here, the bad smell and yucky feeling are the aversive stimuli. Showering is negatively reinforced by the removal of the aversive stimuli.

Example 1: Taking a Shower

  • Context: You come home smelly and covered by sweat
  • Behavior: Taking a shower
  • Stimulus: Bad smell and yucky feeling
  • Negative Reinforcement: Taking a shower gets rid of the bad odor and sticky feeling. It allows you to escape from the aversive stimuli already present.

Notice that whether a certain stimulus is aversive is subjective. An aversive stimulus to one person may be a favorable one to another.

For instance, not everyone likes or cares for the fresh and clean feeling after a bath. Children behavior, for example, falls into this category. Kids don’t mind being smelly or yucky. (That is why it can be a chore for some of us parents to get our little ones to take a bath.)

Girl picks up toy ball and puts it away into the toy box. She is doing it with a smile, examples of negative reinforcement. Sometimes a child is given food as a reward.

Example 2: Picking up toys

Here’s another negative reinforcement example. Little kids often spread their toys such as stuffed animals around the room when they play and then neglect to put them away. Some parents come up with “cleanup songs”, “cleanup rituals” or other creative ways to entice children to pick up toys after playing. This is a positive reinforcement tactic.

The behavior of putting toys away can actually be negatively reinforced. One natural consequence of leaving toys scattered around the house is that they will likely be lost or hard to find when the child wants to play with them again the next time.

By teaching the child this natural consequence, they will likely pick up toys more frequently in the future. The aversive stimulus of toy loss is then avoided.

  • Context: Toys scattered around the house
  • Behavior: Putting away toys after playing
  • Stimulus: Toys lost or misplaced
  • Negative Reinforcement: If the child puts away their toys after playing with them, they won’t lose the toys or forget where they are. The child has then avoided the aversive outcome as a result.

Example 3: Putting on a coat in cold weather

Being able to stay healthy is a very practical motivator. So anytime you can do something to have sickness already present removed (taking something away) or prevented, you will likely repeat it in the future.

Here’s one example. When it is cold outside, wearing a coat can help you prevent the aversive event of getting sick from occurring.

  • Context: A chilly day at low temperature
  • Behavior: Wearing a coat when you go outside
  • Stimulus: Getting a cold
  • Negative Reinforcement: Wearing a coat on a chilly day can prevent you from catching a cold. Your action to avoid sickness is then negatively reinforced.

Example 4: Using sunscreen before going out

Applying sunscreen is also a health-related action you want to reinforce. When the sun is scorching outside, you know from experience that if you go outside without sunscreen, you will get a sunburn. Getting frequent sunburn is not only painful, but it can also lead to skin cancer.

  • Context: Going out in the sun
  • Behavior: Putting on sunscreen
  • Stimulus: Painful and potentially dangerous sunburn
  • Negative Reinforcement: Applying sunscreen can help keep you from getting a sunburn. Therefore, you have avoided the aversive stimulus.

Example 5: Studying hard to avoid failing

There are many reasons students want to study hard for exams. Some students genuinely enjoy learning or like the subject. These students are intrinsically motivated to study hard.

But other students may do it because they want to avoid being reprimanded by their parents for getting a failing grade. This type of studying is negatively reinforced because studying hard allows the student to escape being scolded by their parents.

  • Context: Taking an exam
  • Behavior: Studying hard for the exam
  • Stimulus: Scolded or reprimanded by their parents
  • Negative Reinforcement: Studying hard to earn a good grade and avoid being punished. This is another avoidance reinforcement example.

Misconception About Negative Reinforcement

As seen in the examples, negative reinforcement occurs a lot more than we know in our daily life although we don’t hear this term often.

A common misconception about the use of negative reinforcement is that it is less effective or desirable than positive reinforcement.

However, we’ve already seen that putting away toys so you won’t lose them, wearing a jacket to avoid getting a cold, and using sunscreen to prevent sunburn are all “good behavior” that can be effectively increased through negative reinforcement. Therefore, negative reinforcement is not always less effective or desirable than positive reinforcement. (In fact, not all positive reinforcement are good either.)

Whether a specific negative reinforcement is good/effective or not depends on the particular situation and context. General statements such as “negative reinforcement is not as good as positive reinforcement on someone” is simply incorrect.

Drug Addiction

Addictive substance such as opiates can produce a physical dependence after only a small number of uses (or even after a single use in some cases).

The consequence of drug abuse is very significant, to the addict and to the community. It can affect health, economic, and functioning of the society deeply. Unfortunately, substance abuse is a behavior that is very hard to curb because it is persistently encouraged through negative reinforcement.

A falling level of drug in the addicted person’s body can create a severe withdrawal syndrome. Drugs such as benzodiazepines, a type of tranquilizers, can cause anxiety and seizures during drug withdrawal. Cocaine can cause depression and restlessness and alcohol can cause tremors and seizures that last for days.

These withdrawal symptoms can only be rapidly alleviated by taking the drug again. Drug use, an undesired behavior, is therefore reinforced negatively when the aversive symptoms are taken away by taking another dose of the drug​4​, causing relapses likely to occur.

Mom points her finger and yells at girl. The girl is sitting on bed and crying. Scolding is an aversive stimulus.

Negative Reinforcement Trap

Here is a less obvious but more pervasive example of parents using negative reinforcement unintentionally.

Mom tells a toddler to go to bed, which the toddler hates. The toddler then protests, whines, and throws a tantrum. Mom gives in and allows a later bedtime to stop the tantrum. The child stops crying and whining.

In this case, going to bed is an aversive stimulus for the child. By throwing a tantrum, the aversive stimulus is avoided, reinforcing the tantrum-throwing behavior.

At the same time, a toddler’s whining and crying is an aversive stimulus for Mom. When Mom gives in, the aversive stimulus is taken away, reinforcing Mom’s giving-in behavior.

The child has learned that tantrum and defiance can remove a parent’s demands. The parent has learned that giving up can remove a child’s tantrum. Reinforcement has occurred for both of them without them knowing it. This is escape learning as they both learn to escape the unpleasant situation.

The interaction is called the Negative Reinforcement Trap​5​.

A Negative Reinforcement Trap is created when parents do not follow through on their commands or discipline, unintentionally reinforcing non-compliance in their children.

Both parent’s and children’s behavior are mutually shaped through these negative reinforcement conditioning processes​6​. The parent has been trained to give up when the child behaves aversively, and the child has been trained to act aversive every times the parent disciplines.

Mom tries to pull son up by his arms. The boy is crying and protesting on the floor resisting. Coercive cycle is predicted by the coercive theory class.

Inconsistent Parenting and Conduct Problems

The strength of the child’s non-compliant response is affected by the four types of schedules of reinforcement, i.e., when and how often the parent gives in.

A parent’s giving in sometimes but not all the time actually strengthens the child’s aversive behaviors the most.

Inconsistent parenting amounts to a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, which is the same type of reinforcement schedule that causes some people to become deeply addicted to gambling. When applied in parenting, inconsistency makes the child’s defiant behavior to become increasingly hard to change.

Back to the previous example. Over time, Mom becomes more and more frustrated. She gets tough by yelling, threatening, or acting physically aggressive.

One of three things can now happen:
1) The toddler stops whining and throwing tantrums out of fear, which negatively reinforces Mom’s harsh behavior,
2) The toddler escalates the protest, which frustrates Mom more and she gets even tougher in response, or
3) 1 or 2 above happens intermittently depending on who “wins” on different occasions, and the inconsistency strengthens both participants’ aggressive behavior.

As the dynamic continues, the parent-child interactions become more difficult to manage, leading to a destructive coercive cycle​7​.

This is how some children develop conduct problems, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, according to Coercion Theory​8​.

Final Thoughts

To break or prevent a negative reinforcement coercive cycle, parents should use non-aggressive and non-punitive disciplinary methods, such as Positive Discipline, to deal with their children’s aversive behavior. It’s also a good idea to set boundaries and be consistent in enforcing rules. Check out these 10 parenting tips on how to be a good parent.


References

  1. 1.
    Skinner B. Operant behavior. American psychologist. 1963;18(8):503.
  2. 2.
    Staddon JER, Cerutti DT. Operant Conditioning. Annu Rev Psychol. February 2003:115-144. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124
  3. 3.
    Iwata BA. NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT IN APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS: AN EMERGING TECHNOLOGY. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. December 1987:361-378. doi:10.1901/jaba.1987.20-361
  4. 4.
    Baker TB, Piper ME, McCarthy DE, Majeskie MR, Fiore MC. Addiction Motivation Reformulated: An Affective Processing Model of Negative Reinforcement. Psychological Review. 2004:33-51. doi:10.1037/0033-295x.111.1.33
  5. 5.
    Wierson M, Forehand R. Parent Behavioral Training for Child Noncompliance: Rationale, Concepts, and Effectiveness. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. October 1994:146-150. doi:10.1111/1467-8721.ep10770643
  6. 6.
    Lunkenheimer E, Lichtwarck-Aschoff A, Hollenstein T, Kemp CJ, Granic I. Breaking Down the Coercive Cycle: How Parent and Child Risk Factors Influence Real-Time Variability in Parental Responses to Child Misbehavior. Parenting. August 2016:237-256. doi:10.1080/15295192.2016.1184925
  7. 7.
    Patterson GR. The aggressive child: Victim and architect of a coercive system. Behavior modification and families. 1976;1:267-316.
  8. 8.
    Gardner FEM. Inconsistent parenting: Is there evidence for a link with children’s conduct problems? J Abnorm Child Psychol. April 1989:223-233. doi:10.1007/bf00913796
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