Did you know that parents could train their children to act defiant?
“Who in their right mind 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.
Operant conditioning overview
Behavioral psychologist, B. F. Skinner, believed that one’s behavior could be increased or decreased in frequency by using a stimulus through a process called operant conditioning1.
The theory of operant conditioning (Reinforcement Theory) states that behaviors are controlled by their consequences2.
There are two types of operant conditioning – reinforcement and punishment.
There are also two forms of reinforcement – positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Both positive and negative reinforcement can increase a target behavior.
The positive and negative here describe how the stimulus is used to enhance the specific behavior.
When a reinforcing stimulus is added to reinforce a certain behavior, positive reinforcement results. When an unpleasant 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. They simply describe whether a stimulus is added (positive) or subtracted (negative) to reinforce the particular behavior.
What Is Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement is encouraging the desired behavior to repeat in the future by removing or avoiding an aversive stimulus.
People sometimes associate positive reinforcement meaning with rewards. Naturally, some of them 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 punishment.
Reinforcement encourages certain behaviors to repeat and raises the future frequency of an action. On the other hand, positive/negative punishment discourages target behavior.
The “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 or avoid undesirable outcomes as the consequence.
In negative reinforcement, that favorable outcome is the removal of an aversive stimulus already present or avoidance of a bad thing from happening.
The person wants to repeat the target action because they want this consequence to repeat.
To have negative reinforcement work effectively, the stimulus removed or avoided needs to be unpleasant to the person, such as a bad smell or a speeding ticket.
Removal and reduction of aversive stimuli produce behavior that is called an escape. Postponement and prevention of undesirable outcomes produce behavior that is called avoidance3.
As seen in the examples, although we don’t hear this term often, negative reinforcement occurs a lot more than we know in our everyday life.
A common misconception about the use of negative reinforcer 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 cold, and using sunscreen to prevent sunburn are all “good behavior” that can be effectively increased through negative reinforcement.
Therefore, this type of reinforcement is not less desirable than positive reinforcement. In fact, not all positive reinforcement is good either.
Whether a specific negative reinforcement is good/effective or not depends on the particular situation, context, and the specific operations.
General statements such as “positive reinforcement is a better way to discipline” are simply incorrect.
Here are some examples of negative reinforcement in everyday life.
- Take a shower on a hot day to remove the bad smell and yucky feeling.
- Wear a coat on a chilly day to avoid catching a cold.
- Put away toys after playing with them to prevent losing them.
- Study hard for an exam to avoid a low grade.
- Put on sunscreen before going out on a sunny day to prevent sunburn.
- Stop fighting with siblings to avoid getting a time-out.
- Follow the law to avoid being put in jail.
- Drive under the speed limit to avoid getting a speeding ticket.
- Leave home early for work to avoid being stuck in traffic and arriving late.
- Buy concert tickets early to avoid being sold out.
- Wear a seat belt to avoid injury in case an accident happens.
Examples in Psychology
An 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 the health, economy, and functioning of a 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 drugs in the addicted person’s body can create a severe withdrawal syndrome.
Drugs such as benzodiazepines, a type of tranquilizer, 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, unwanted behavior, is therefore reinforced negatively when the aversive symptoms are taken away by taking another dose of the drug4, causing relapses likely to occur.
Examples At Home
Here is a less obvious but more pervasive example of negative reinforcement used by parents 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. By throwing a tantrum, the negative outcome is avoided, 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 Trap5.
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 processes6.
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 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 schedule of reinforcement, which is the same type of schedule that causes some people to become deeply addicted to gambling.
When applied in parenting, inconsistency makes behavior change increasingly difficult.
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 takes place 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 cycle7.
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).
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 be consistent in enforcing rules.
Check out these 10 parenting tips.
- 1.Skinner B. Operant behavior. American psychologist. 1963;18(8):503.
- 2.Staddon JER, Cerutti DT. Operant Conditioning. Annu Rev Psychol. February 2003:115-144. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124
- 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.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.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.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.Patterson GR. The aggressive child: Victim and architect of a coercive system. Behavior modification and families. 1976;1:267-316.
- 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