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What Is Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

| What is Reinforcement Theory | What are the types of reinforcement | Schedules of reinforcement | Application in everyday life | Limitations |

“How do I change individual behavior?”

This is an important and practical question that is asked every day—by parents who need to discipline their children, companies that want to increase productivity, or people who want to stick to an exercise routine.

Psychology has offered several schools of thought and approaches. One of them—Reinforcement Theory—has become very popular because of its simplicity and wide range of applications.

What is Reinforcement Theory

Based on Reinforcement Theory, a person’s or animal’s behavior can be changed by its consequences from the external environment. To increase desired behavior, reward it with a pleasant stimulus or remove an aversive stimulus. To decrease undesired behavior, give an aversive stimulus or remove a pleasant stimulus after it occurs.

Reinforcement Theory is rooted in the principle of operant conditioning, which was first presented by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner. He felt that classical conditioning, which was associative learning of involuntary behavior, was far too simplistic to explain complex human behavior.

B.F. Skinner believed that behavior could be motivated to change by applying a consequence after it occurred. Behaviorism is a school of thought in psychology devoted to applying behavioral modification based on this theory​1​.

mother gives candy to toddler

For example, a parent gives a child candy whenever he successfully uses the potty. If the parent does this frequently and consistently, the child associates the potty with a good experience and is motivated to keep doing it until it becomes a habit.

Operant conditioning is a type of associative learning with the following components:

Behavior – positive behavior or negative behavior that can be changed by the stimulus.

Stimulus – an object or event that is added or removed after behavior to change its future occurrence.

Reinforcer – a stimulus that increases a desirable behavior.

Punisher – a stimulus that decreases an undesirable behavior.

What are the types of reinforcement

There are three types of operant conditioning that can modify behavior​2​. They are:

Reinforcement – using reinforcer as a consequence to encourage a behavior

Punishment – using punishment as a consequence to discourage a behavior

Extinction – stopping all reinforcers or punishers to halt previously reinforced behavior

Both reinforcement and punishment can be further divided into positive and negative types. The term “positive” does not mean positive consequences and “negative” does not mean negative consequences. Rather, “positive” means adding something, and “negative” means removing or depriving something.

1.   Positive reinforcement encourages a behavior by giving a pleasant stimulus

  • Example: Animal trainers give treats to the dog after they perform a trick  

2.   Negative reinforcement encourages a behavior by removing an aversive stimulus

  •  Example: Students who get A’s on all their classwork are exempted from the final exam

3.    Positive punishment discourages a behavior by giving an aversive stimulus

  • Example: Police issue a ticket to drivers who exceed the speed limit

4.   Negative punishment discourages a behavior by removing a pleasant stimulus

  • Example: After a teenager breaks curfew, he is grounded.

5.   Extinction stops a previously reinforced behavior over time by the absence of reinforcements

  • Example: When a child keeps making funny faces but nobody laughs, she eventually stops doing it.

Schedules of reinforcement: When are reinforcers or punishers applied

The types of reinforcement schedules determine when consequences are applied in the process of reinforcement​3​.

Continuous reinforcement schedules – Consequences are given every time the behavior occurs. 

Intermittent reinforcement schedules – Consequences are only given some of the time after the behavior happens.

Intermittent schedules can come in these forms:

  1. Fixed Interval. The reinforcement is applied after a specific period of time since the last reinforcement. 
  2. Fixed Ratio. The reinforcement is applied after a specified number of reinforcement has been delivered.
  3. Variable interval. The reinforcement is given after a variable duration since the last reinforcement.
  4. Variable ratio. The reinforcement is given after a variable number of reinforcement has been delivered.

Application of reinforcement theory in everyday life

You can find examples of Reinforcement Theory in many real-life situations.


Reinforcement and punishment are used frequently by parents to discipline their children.

Screentime is rewarded when a child completes their homework (positive reinforcement). If a child gets a good grade in an exam, chores are waived (negative reinforcement). If a child violates a family rule, he is given a time-out (positive punishment). Lying results in a child losing her allowance (negative punishment).


Many schools have replaced corporal punishment with positive and negative reinforcement.

When a child completes an assigned activity, they are given praise or stickers (positive reinforcement). When a child gets a good grade, they can skip one homework assignment (negative reinforcement).

Behaviors in organizations

Companies encourage productivity through positive and negative reinforcers.

They empower employees with additional responsibility if they meet their business targets (positive reinforcement), or allow those with high-performance levels to work from home with flexible work hours (negative reinforcement).

Sales and marketing

Rewards, such as discounts for repeat purchases, are common marketing tactics that encourage repeat consumer purchases (positive reinforcement).

Video games

Many online games apply Reinforcement Theory to increase players’ game time. Players may be given experience points for task completion to increase their ranking (positive reinforcement) or denied access to new areas if they have not completed a quest (negative punishment).

Limitations of Reinforcement Theory

The aforementioned examples indicate that reinforcement principles have practical and tested applications in the real world. Despite being a powerful tool for explaining human behavior, operant conditioning has its limitations.

One of the biggest assumptions of reinforcement theory is that consequences influence behavior. It does not account for all human behavior, and it does not always accurately predict how people will respond to different types of reinforcement.

For example, positive punishment used to stop children from showing bad behavior can often backfire on parents of strong-willed children. Unwanted behavior increases rather than decreases after the punishment​4​.

This is because the theory does not account for higher-level motivations which could lead to conflicting results.

Humans are complex creatures who are driven not just by a fear of behavioral consequences, but also by other conscious, subconscious, and unconscious factors.


  1. 1.
    McLeod SA. Bf Skinner: Operant Conditioning. .; 2007:115-144.
  2. 2.
    Leitenberg H, Rawson RA, Mulick JA. Extinction and reinforcement of alternative behavior. Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology. Published online 1975:640-652. doi:10.1037/h0076418
  3. 3.
    Ferster CB, Skinner BF. Schedules of Reinforcement. Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1957. doi:10.1037/10627-000
  4. 4.
    Lytton H. Child and parent effects in boys’ conduct disorder: A reinterpretation. Developmental Psychology. Published online September 1990:683-697. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.26.5.683

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