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Positive Reinforcement and Operant Conditioning

Positive reinforcement is a preferred parenting strategy to discipline in recent years because this method doesn’t involve aversive measures or punishment. Let’s find out what positive reinforcement is and the best way to use it.

Dog raises its paw, man feeds it treats to train it using positive reinforcement.

What Is Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a type of operant conditioning that aims to increase desired behavior by introducing a favorable stimulus right after the target behavior.

This favorable stimulus is referred to as a positive reinforcer. A positive reinforcer reinforces a person’s tendency to adopt the new practice over time, increasing the likelihood a target behavior will be repeated in the future.

A positive reinforcer is something that the person usually enjoys or prefers and motivates them to engage in the target behavior again, such as giving a child a gift whenever they do well on a school test.

Positive reinforcement has gained popularity because it creates a positive learning environment preferred by parents at home and teachers in the classroom.

Positive Reinforcement Examples

Here are some examples of positive reinforcement.

Example 1 – Animal training

A dog trainer gives his dog a treat every time it raises its paw after the trainer raises his hand. Now, whenever the trainer raises his hand, the dog also raises his paw, even though no treats are given.

Before reinforcementA dog doesn’t react to trainer’s hand gesture
ReinforcerA treat
Target behaviorWhenever the trainer raises his hand, the dog also raises his paw

Example 2: Do chores

A parent gives an allowance to their child for doing chores.

Before reinforcementChores are not done
Reinforcer Money
Target behavior The child completes the chore
Boy dreams about getting allowance while sweeping floor, one of the most common positive reinforcement examples

Example 3: Work overtime to finish a project

Positive reinforcement works on adults, too. Companies often use bonuses as incentives for workers to spend more time and energy on their job.

Before reinforcementProject is not being completed as quickly as the boss would like
ReinforcerBonus on top of their salary
Target behaviorEmployee works overtime to finish the project

Differences Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

So what are the differences between positive and negative reinforcement?

In psychology, positive and negative do not indicate the quality of the reinforcers.

Positive refers to adding a stimulus, while negative refers to subtracting a stimulus.

Positive reinforcement adds a favorable stimulus to enhance target behavior. So, it is reasonable to believe that positive also refers to quality. By the same token, negative reinforcement removes an aversive stimulus to encourage a target behavior. It is, therefore, also reasonable to believe that negative implies the quality of the reinforcer. 

But neither beliefs are true.

The two methods simply refer to whether a stimulus is being added or removed.

Girl helps mom do laundry. Both are smiling, great examples of positive reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement in Parenting

Parents often use positive reinforcement to motivate their children to behave in the desired way.

Examples of positive reinforcement in parenting:

  • A Mom promised her children a trip to the park if they played well together while she was on a conference call.
  • A Dad motivates his child to study hard by promising a reward for receiving good grades.
  • A child is praised for helping do the laundry.

These practices are popular because they’re simple and easy to implement. You do this, and then you get that. Period.

Reinforced behavior becomes habitual quickly, as long as the reinforcement continues, so parents often see fast results.

This approach also often makes parents feel better about their parenting abilities. Pleasant reinforcers are used instead of positive punishment or negative punishment. There are no angry children to deal with, making it an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

The result of positive reinforcement is usually predictable. Because the target behavior is clearly rewarded, there is no confusion or unexpected outcomes.

Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

Nowadays, many teachers utilize positive reinforcement in their classrooms to control or modify students’ behavior.

Behavior charts are familiar classroom fixtures that serve as a form of positive reinforcements. When students show appropriate or prosocial behavior, the teacher places points or tokens on the chart. At certain amounts, those points and tokens can be exchanged for small gifts.

Positive reinforcement is often preferred over other ways to modify behavior because no punishment or aversive methods are involved. 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 reinforcements, they yield better results.

A reward certificate template with kids and stars illustration, often used as positive reinforcement in the classroom

Does Positive Reinforcement Work

In certain situations, such as dog training, positive reinforcement works extremely well.

Elementary teachers giving out gold stars for promptly completed homework also seems to work quite effectively.

While positive reinforcement seems like its overwhelmingly successful, this isn’t always the case.

Problems with Positive Reinforcement

When positive reinforcement succeeds, the outcome is wonderful. 

But positive reinforcement doesn’t always bring about positive outcomes 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 longlasting.

Here are some of the drawbacks of using positive reinforcement.

Decrease Intrinsic Motivation

Researchers have proven that positive reinforcement can decrease a person’s intrinsic behavior, and therefore, lower the quality of the target behavior​1​.

Long-Term Effectiveness

When a positive reinforcer is used repeatedly, it becomes expected whenever the desired action is performed. But as soon as the rewards stop, the reinforced behavior stops, too (extinction).

Ethics and Values

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of positive reinforcement is that it associates the action with the wrong stimulus. In parenting, its use sometimes teaches a child the wrong lesson.

When a child is given an allowance to take out the garbage, they learn that they should take out the trash if, and only if, they get paid. Otherwise, it is not their responsibility. Ironically, many parents think that this practice could teach a child about being responsible. However, instead of instilling responsibility, it’s teaching the child to assign a monetary value to duties and only do the work if they are paid accordingly.

Positive Reinforcement Trap

Sometimes, positive reinforcement can have adverse outcomes, especially when it is unintended. For example, whenever a child acts up, the parent gives them extra attention. The child quickly learns that their misbehavior earns extra attention. This reward becomes a positive reinforcer to the child’s misbehavior. This type of positive reinforcement trap is counterproductive.

Girl laughs while holding an open book, result of using positive reinforcement psychology

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 effectively​2​:

1. Non-tangible awards are preferred over tangible rewards

To counter the problem of rewards reducing intrinsic motivation, use praise instead of tangible rewards such as toys or allowance. According to psychology studies, praises are some of the most effective forms of positive reinforcement.

2. Offer positive, constructive feedback as a reward

Praises 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 an excellent job typing the trash up nice and tight.”

3. When using praises, praise for the quality of action

Praises should not be given for just doing 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 positive behavior. This reinforcement reinforces the boy’s good behavior. When a child gets enough attention from parents from regular interactions during the day, they will not need to act up to get attention.

5. Give the reinforcement as soon as action is performed

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 reinforcement contingency

Schedules of reinforcement can impact the effectiveness of the reinforcement. Studies have shown that the variable-ratio schedule is most effective.

Therefore, reinforcers should be unexpected. If the person expects a reward, it becomes a contingency. Regularly offering contingent rewards reduces intrinsic motivation. An unexpected reward is often more effective in motivating the adoption of new behaviors.

Final Thoughts on Positive Reinforcement 

Using positive reinforcers to motivate target behavior has benefits, but also problems. When used appropriately, positive reinforcement is highly effective, as parents who have potty-trained their toddlers over a weekend by giving out gold stars or candies can attest. But when a positive reinforcer is used as a bribe, it can backfire.

Children are smart. They will quickly figure out that if you need to use a bribe, the behavior probably is not something they will want to adopt in the long run. Whenever possible, motivate your child intrinsically instead of using extrinsic motivation.


References

  1. 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. 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.