Positive Reinforcement: 7 Most Crucial Questions Answered

Ever pulled a prank on someone that backfired?

I can safely bet you didn’t try the same trick again, at least on the same person. I can say I won’t ever tell a Dachshund owner they have a lovely dog and risk myself being chased by an angry animal. Incidentally, I sounded lovely as “lowly.” Never!

When an act leads to an unpalatable outcome, the bitter aftertaste makes you less likely to do it again in the future. Psychologists call the unpleasant outcome a punisher.

On the flip side, when your action ends in a positive result and a pleasant feeling, you are more likely to repeat it. Behavioral experts call this Positive Reinforcement. It is a powerful tool in classrooms to instill good behavior in students.

Positive or negative, reinforcement is a highly effective method of changing behaviors (Martin & Pear, 1996). In this article, we restrict ourselves mainly to positive reinforcement.


What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is presenting a pleasant and positive response to the desired behavior. This pleasant response acts as a stimulus and increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated in the future. In simple words, it means when a behavior is rewarded, that behavior gets strengthened.

According to APA, positive reinforcement is an increase in the probability of occurrence of some activity because that activity results in the presentation of a stimulus or some circumstance.

For example, positive reinforcement is praising a child and giving them a small gift after they clean their room increases the likelihood they will clean up their room again.

It is a highly effective method to train animals and children. In animals, positive reinforcement is used to instill good behaviors, like training dogs. One great example is guide dogs (also called seeing-eye dogs) to help blind or visually impaired people around obstacles.

In children, it can be useful as a positive parenting method by rewarding the natural tendencies towards good behavior, like giving praise and hug after each successful act during potty training.

What are the 4 types of reinforcement?

According to the groundbreaking behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, there are four types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction.

Skinner built his Operant Conditioning model on the idea that we can best understand a certain behavior and control it by examining its cause and effects. However, Skinner wasn’t the first to think it up. It was Thorndike’s “law of effect” that inspired him.

  1. Positive reinforcement: a pleasant response (i.e., a reward) given out to encourage a certain behavior.
  2. Negative reinforcement: an unpleasant or unwanted response is taken away to encourage a behavior.
  3. Positive punishment: an unpleasant or unwanted response (i.e., a punishment) is introduced to discourage a certain behavior.
  4. Negative punishment (also called extinction): a pleasant response is taken away to discourage the behavior.

What is the best type of reinforcement?

While all types of reinforcement are useful, positive reinforcement appears to be the best in terms of effectiveness and acceptance. It reinforces what the person is doing right rather than focusing on what they are doing wrong. It is most helpful when the trainee is not yet habituated to some bad behavior and has an eagerness to please the trainer.

  • Positive reinforcement makes for an excellent method to train pet animals and instill good behavior in young children. Dog trainers almost invariably use positive reinforcement.
  • The effectiveness of positive reinforcement depends on a few factors. Of these, the most important one is to give out the positive reward as soon as possible after the desired behavior is performed. The longer the time between the behavior and the reward, the more likely some other behavior/reward gets introduced and reinforced.
  • Research has found positive reinforcement is an effective method for motivating employees. Both intrinsic rewards, like praise, encouragement, empowerment, and extrinsic rewards like salary, bonus, fringe benefits, were effective motivators and positively related to employee efficiency and effectiveness (Wei & Yazdanifard, 2014).

Why is Positive Reinforcement the best?

Positive reinforcement has many unique advantages.

  • Positive reinforcement is typically easier to accept than other training approaches because it does not necessitate taking something away or imposing a negative consequence.
  • It’s also a lot easier to encourage actions than it is to discourage them, thus reinforcement is usually a more effective tool than punishment.
  • Positive reinforcement, more importantly, is more effective over time. Learning accompanied by pleasant thoughts and associations is more likely to be recalled, even after the reinforcement period has ended.
  • Belsky, 2008, found positive feedback was most effective for young children between 8 to 9 years of age. Whereas negative feedback was found to be more effective for older children and adults, that is, 11 to 12+ years of age.
  • More effective teachers spend more time promoting good behavior rather than responding to irresponsible behavior.
  • Positive outcomes for students have been linked to the use of behavior-specific praise based only on the student’s behavior. Positive reinforcement has been shown to increase academic engagement and lower incidences of indiscipline and disruptive behavior.

What are the types of reinforcers?

There are four types of positive reinforcers:

  1. Natural reinforcers: Reinforcers that emerge naturally as a result of the activity. An example is an employee works hard all year round and gets top grades in annual assessment, resulting in a much desired promotion.
  2. Social reinforcers: These are expressions of approval by other people, as a boss, a trainer, or a parent, when a certain behavior is shown. Examples of praise or complements could be, “Kudos! You did amazing!” or “That’s some rocking great work!”
  3. Tangible reinforcers: Reinforcers that are physical or tangible benefits, like cash for employees, toys for kids, treats for pet dogs.
  4. Token reinforcers: Reinforcers that are rewards given out when a particular behaviour is carried out. These may be collected and later swapped for something valuable. An example is when an employee earns reward points at each of their achievements, which they save up and exchange for a physical reward as a bottle of great wine.

Natural reinforcers and social reinforcers are the most effective and helpful ones. Token reinforcers are typically used with children, whereas tangible reinforcers are used for dog training.

Angry Dachshund chasing
An angry Dachshund coming after you!

What are the 4 principles of reinforcement?

Access to the following four fundamental principles of reinforcement results in a behavior:

  1. Social reinforcement, includes paying attention, being physically close, making physical contact, and receiving praise.
  2. Escape reinforcement, the act of retreating from unpleasant duties or demands.
  3. Object reinforcement, such as granting access to tangible goods, personal items, and foods.
  4. Sensory reinforcement, such as touch, vibrations, lights, smells, and sound.

How do you reinforce behavior change?

Here are some of the most powerful reward ideas for reinforcing behavior in adults:

  • Money, like a salary raise or a bonus.
  • Praise like cheering, clapping, announcing the achievement in front of their peers.
  • Acknowledging the accomplishment with a high-five, thumbs-up, hug, pat on the back.
  • Gift ideas like an all-expense paid holiday or prepaid gift cards.
  • Privileges like a parking lot closer to the office or a half-day off.
  • Tickets or coupons for an enjoyable experience, like tickets to a theme park a concert.

Final Words

Skinner felt humanity’s future depends on sacrificing individual freedom and dignity in favor of designing the human environment so that behavior is managed methodically and to desirable purposes rather than haphazardly.

Now that Artificial Intelligence is solving problems decades earlier than we expected, how do you see the future of human behavior? Would AI-assisted models change our behavior beyond all freedom of choice?


Are rewards the same as positive reinforcements?

No. Although all reinforcers are rewards, many rewards are not reinforcers, because they do not bring about a behavior change.

Which is more effective—negative or positive reinforcement?

▪ Negative reinforcement is most effective in initiating a behavior change when a habit is well-set in place.
▪ Positive reinforcement is more effective when a behavior has not yet been firmly habituated.

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Boundaries define the limits of our acceptance and tolerance in a relationship. Setting boundaries might be the best bet for healthy, long-lasting relationships. Learn how to set relationship boundaries.

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Author Bio: Written and reviewed by Sandip Roy—a medical doctor, psychology writer, happiness researcher. Founder and chief editor of The Happiness Blog. Writes popular science articles on happiness, positive psychology, and related topics.

• Our story: Happiness Project

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