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11 Negative Reinforcement Examples in Everyday Life

Negative reinforcement removes an aversive or unpleasant stimulus to increase the likelihood of repeated behavior. It’s a fundamental aspect of operant conditioning, a theory developed by B.F. Skinner posits that behaviors are influenced by their consequences. Negative reinforcement is one of two types of reinforcement, the other being positive reinforcement, which involves adding a desirable stimulus to encourage behavior.

There are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative. Contrary to the common misconception, negative reinforcement is not less effective or desirable than positive reinforcement. The term “negative” simply refers to subtracting an aversive condition, not the method’s efficacy or moral value.

Examples of negative reinforcement in everyday life include a mother ceasing to nag when a child tidies up toys or the cessation of a tantrum when a toddler is given candy. In psychology, negative reinforcement is notably observed in substance abuse, where the removal of withdrawal symptoms through drug intake reinforces the behavior.

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

What is negative reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement occurs when something aversive or unpleasant is removed to increase the likelihood of a behavior repeating in the future. For example, the discomfort of sweat and odor is removed when you shower on a hot day, encouraging you to shower more frequently when the weather is hot.

Negative reinforcement does not mean it is bad or punishing in nature. It means removing or taking away something.

Reinforcement encourages certain behaviors to repeat; negative refers to the lack of bad experiences that create this encouragement.

What are some examples of negative reinforcement?

Here are some examples of negative reinforcement in everyday life.

  • The bad smell is removed when you shower on a hot day.
  • A mom stops nagging when the child puts away his toys.
  • A failing grade is removed when a student turns in the missing homework.
  • The tantrum stops when a father gives his toddler candy.
  • The room isn’t messy after you organize it.

What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning is a learning process through which a stimulus can increase or decrease a behavior by reinforcement or punishment.​1​ It’s a key concept in behavioral psychology, first described by American psychologist B.F. Skinner.

What is the reinforcement theory?

Skinner’s reinforcement theory states that behaviors are controlled by their consequences​2​ through operant conditioning. A behavior is reinforced or encouraged when a desirable consequence follows. A behavior is punished or discouraged when an undesired consequence follows.

What are the 2 types of reinforcement?

The 2 types of reinforcement are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Reinforcement involves applying a favorable consequence to promote the recurrence of a behavior. This favorable outcome is achieved by introducing a positive stimulus or eliminating a negative one.

What is the difference between positive and negative reinforcement?

The difference between positive and negative reinforcement lies in the nature of the stimulus introduced or removed following a behavior

Positive reinforcement encourages the recurrence of behavior by adding a desirable stimulus. Negative reinforcement encourages a behavior to repeat by taking away an aversive stimulus.

What does the word negative in negative reinforcement mean?

The word negative refers to removing something. In negative reinforcement, an unfavorable stimulus is taken away to enhance the future occurrence of the behavior. Here, negative does not refer to the quality of the stimulus or whether it’s good or bad.

What is avoidance?

Avoidance is a specific type of negative reinforcement where the behavior is reinforced because it prevents or avoids an unpleasant stimulus from occurring in the first place. The escape or avoidance of the negative situation reinforces the avoidance behavior.​3​

For example, someone might leave home earlier to avoid getting caught in traffic. The behavior (leaving early) avoids the unpleasant experience (traffic).

Is negative reinforcement less effective than positive reinforcement?

No, negative reinforcement is not less effective than positive reinforcement. Their effectiveness varies depending on the situation, context, and the individual involved. Both can be powerful behavior modification methods that work in different ways.

It is a misunderstanding that negative reinforcement is less desirable than positive reinforcement. This confusion often arises because “positive reinforcement” is more familiar to many people.

There’s also a mistaken belief that “negative” in negative reinforcement implies a negative quality of the method or the stimulus used. This is a misinterpretation of the word “negative, which simply refers to removing an unpleasant stimulus, not to the quality or effectiveness of the reinforcement method itself.

What are some examples of negative reinforcement in psychology?

An addictive substance such as opiates can produce a physical dependence after only a few uses (or even after a single use in some cases).

Unfortunately, substance abuse is a behavior that is very hard to curb because it is persistently encouraged through negative reinforcement.

A falling level of drugs in the addicted person’s body can create a severe withdrawal syndrome.

Drugs, such as benzodiazepine 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 retaking the drug.

Therefore, drug use, unwanted behavior, is reinforced negatively when the aversive symptoms are taken away by taking another dose of the drug, causing relapses likely to occur.​4​

Examples At Home

Here is a less obvious but more pervasive example of negative reinforcement parents use 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 her child’s tantrum. The child then stops crying and whining.

In this case, going to bed is an aversive stimulus for the child. Throwing a tantrum prevents the negative outcome, reinforcing the tantrum-throwing behavior.

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

In other words, the child has learned that tantrums and defiance can remove a parent’s demands. The parent has learned that giving up can remove a child’s tantrum.

A strong association 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 parents 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 time the parent disciplines.

Examples In Parenting

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

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

Inconsistent parenting amounts to a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement, which is the same schedule that causes some people to become deeply addicted to gambling.

When applied in parenting, inconsistency makes behavior change increasingly tricky.

Back to the previous example.

Over time, Mom becomes more and more frustrated. She gets tough by yelling, threatening, or acting physically aggressive.con

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 occurs 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 challenging to manage, leading to a destructive, coercive cycle.​7​

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

Examples For Students

Here is a negative reinforcement example in the classroom.

A teacher wants to reinforce the importance of students completing their homework. He decides that students who turn in all their completed homework on time are exempt from the final exam at the end of the school year.

Exams are stressful for most people, and students generally dislike them. Taking an exam, therefore, is an aversive stimulus and negative reinforcer.

By removing the aversive stimulus (exams), the teacher reinforces the student’s behavior (completing homework).

Final Thoughts

To break or prevent a negative reinforcement 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 consistently enforce rules.


  1. 1.
    Skinner B. Operant behavior. American psychologist. 1963;18(8):503.
  2. 2.
    Staddon JER, Cerutti DT. Operant Conditioning. Annu Rev Psychol. Published online February 2003:115-144. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124
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    Iwata BA. NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT IN APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS: AN EMERGING TECHNOLOGY. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Published online 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. Published online 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. Published online 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. Published online August 23, 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. Published online April 1989:223-233. doi:10.1007/bf00913796


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