Positive reinforcement is a preferred disciplinary strategy in positive parenting because this method doesn’t involve aversive measures or punishment.
However, this method doesn’t always work the way we think.
Let’s find out what positive reinforcement is, its applications in everyday life, and the best way to use it.
What Is Positive Reinforcement?
In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement aims to increase desired behavior by adding a favorable stimulus right after that behavior occurs. It is rewarding someone for what they do, and this reward encourages them to do it again.
The reinforcing stimulus is a positive reinforcer.
A positive reinforcer is something that a person usually enjoys or prefers, so it can motivate them to repeat the target behavior.
Positive reinforcement increases an individual’s tendency to adopt a new practice over time.
This conditioning method has gained popularity over other operant conditioning because it creates a positive learning environment preferred by parents at home and teachers in the classroom.
What are the 4 types of reinforcement?
While positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement use consequences to encourage a behavior, punishment uses consequences to discourage a behavior.
Positive punishment is adding an aversive stimulus to deter behavior and negative punishment is removing a favorable stimulus to do so.
Positive Reinforcement Examples
Here are 10 examples of positive reinforcement in everyday life.
- Dog trainers give dogs food rewards every time they raise their paws on command.
- Mom gives a child an allowance for doing house chores.
- The manager gives a worker a bonus for completing the project faster.
- Dad praises his son for studying hard for the exam.
- A toddler is given a piece of candy every time she uses the potty.
- An athlete is given an award for running the fastest.
- A teacher gives a student extra credit for turning in schoolwork on time.
- Employees are given attendance awards for not missing work.
- A parent gives a teenager more privileges for getting good grades.
- A kid is given a star sticker for doing homework.
The Differences Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement
So what is the difference between positive and negative reinforcement?
In psychology, positive and negative do not represent the quality of the reinforcers. Instead, positive refers to adding a stimulus, while negative refers to subtracting a stimulus.
Positive reinforcement adds a favorable stimulus to increase the probability a response will repeat.
So, it is reasonable to believe that positive also refers to the quality of the reinforcement or the target action.
But this is not true.
The two methods, positive or negative, simply refer to whether a stimulus or consequence is being added (positive) or removed (negative).
Positive Reinforcement for Kids
Parents, especially those who practice positive parenting, often use positive reinforcement to motivate young children to behave.
These disciplinary practices are popular because they’re simple and easy to administer.
They are also clear and produce predictable results.
You do this, and then you get that.
There is no confusion or unexpected outcome.
Parents often see fast results using positive reinforcement.
The desired response can become habitual quickly.
This approach makes parents feel better about their parenting.
They can use pleasant reinforcers instead of aversive consequences.
There are no angry kids to deal with, making it an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.
Related: Shaping Psychology
Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom
Many teachers use positive reinforcement in their classrooms to control or change students’ problem behavior.
Behavior charts are familiar classroom fixtures that serve as a form of positive reinforcement.
When students show appropriate or specific behavior, positive reinforcers such as points or tokens are put on the student’s chart.
When the points accumulate to a certain amount, the students can exchange them for a small gift.
Avoiding punishment is a welcome change for both students and teachers.
There is less of a power struggle, and since students are more receptive to positive reinforcement, this method seems to yield excellent results in a school setting.
Is Positive Reinforcement Better Than Punishment?
Positive reinforcement is often better than punishment.
While punishment is sometimes quick in stopping negative behavior, it doesn’t teach what appropriate behavior is.
Positive reinforcement shifts the attention to acceptable behavior by rewarding it.
Here are some examples of reinforcement.
Using treats to train dogs to perform tricks works extremely well.
Elementary teachers giving out gold stars for promptly completed homework also see excellent results in motivating students.
Schedules of reinforcement describe the frequency of reinforcement applications and the timing between them.
In order to form a new habit, reinforcement needs to happen repeatedly.
Besides continuous reinforcement schedules, there are four types of intermittent reinforcement schedules:
- Fixed interval – fixed time period between reinforcements
- Fixed ratio – fixed number of times
- Variable interval – variable time period
- Variable ratio variable – variable number of times
Schedules of reinforcement can significantly affect the effectiveness of reinforcement.
An example of reinforcement using variable schedules: – In casinos, slot machines give out rewards randomly.
When gamblers win occasionally, they are positively reinforced with variable ratio schedules, making the game highly addictive.
The Cons of Positive Reinforcement
Even though positive reinforcement seems highly effective, this isn’t always the case.
Positive reinforcement doesn’t always bring about a positive outcome because people are not simple machines that respond and forget.
The stimuli used can have other effects on people’s motivation and desire, and those effects can be long-lasting.
Here are some drawbacks of using positive reinforcement.
Decrease Intrinsic Motivation
Researchers have confirmed that positive reinforcement can weaken a person’s intrinsic behavior and lower the quality of the desired action1.
When you use a positive reinforcer to motivate, you must keep providing for it to stay effective. As soon as the rewards stop, the behavior stops, too.
This phenomenon is called extinction.
Ethics and Values
Perhaps the most problematic aspect of positive reinforcement is that it associates the action with the wrong stimulus.
In parenting, using reinforcers can teach a child the wrong lesson.
For instance, when a child is given an allowance to do chores, they learn that they should take out the trash if, and only if, they get paid.
Otherwise, it is not their responsibility.
Many parents think that this practice could teach a child about being responsible.
However, instead of instilling responsibility, it teaches the child to assign a monetary value to duties and only do the work if they are paid accordingly.
Positive Reinforcement Trap
Positive reinforcement can sometimes produce unintended adverse outcomes.
For example, whenever a child acts up, the parent gives them extra attention.
The child quickly learns that their misbehavior can earn them extra attention.
This unintended reward becomes a positive reinforcer to the child’s misbehavior.
This type of positive reinforcement trap is counterproductive.
How To Use Positive Reinforcement
Despite the many pitfalls, positive reinforcement has its value and its place.
Here is how positive reinforcement can be used effectively2:
1. Non-tangible awards are preferred over tangible rewards
According to psychology studies, a verbal reward is one of the most effective ways to use positive reinforcement.
2. Offer positive feedback as a reward
Praise should provide useful feedback about the process, not just the result.
Be specific and avoid just saying, “Good job.”
If the child took out the trash, consider praising them with a statement like, “Thank you! You did a great job tying the trash up nice and tight.”
3. When using praises, praise for the quality of action
Praise should not be given for just completing a task.
The child should have completed the job well, considering their abilities.
4. Focus on positive behavior
Instead of giving a child extra attention when they misbehave, give it when they behave well to reinforce good behavior.
When a child gets enough attention from parents through regular interactions during the day, they will not need to act up to get attention.
5. Give the reinforcement as soon as the action completes
Research has shown that the sooner the reinforcer is introduced after the target behavior, the more effective it is in motivating the new behavior.
6. No contingent reinforcement
Reinforcers should be unexpected as a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement is more effective than a fixed interval schedule.
An unexpected reward is often more effective in motivating the adoption of new behaviors. If a person expects a reward, it becomes a contingency.
Regularly offering contingent rewards reduces intrinsic motivation.
Also See: Reinforcement Theory of Motivation
Using positive reinforcers to motivate a child’s behavior has benefits but also problems.
Positive reinforcement is highly effective when used appropriately, as parents who have potty-trained their toddlers over a weekend by giving out candies can attest.
However, at the end of the day, if the positive reinforcer is a bribe, it can backfire.
Children are smart.
They will quickly figure out that if you need to use a bribe, the action probably is not something they will want to adopt in the long term.
- 1.Cameron J, Pierce WD. Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. September 1994:363-423. doi:10.3102/00346543064003363
- 2.Akin-Little KA, Eckert TL, Lovett BJ, Little SG. Extrinsic Reinforcement in the Classroom: Bribery or Best Practice. School Psychology Review. 2004;33(3):344-362.