Behavioral Psychology

Positive Reinforcement: Definition, Examples, and Tips

(Last Updated On: January 25, 2023)
Positive Reinforcement Dog Training...

There are many different ways to teach or modify behaviors. One of the most effective is positive reinforcement.

The behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner introduced the idea of positive reinforcement. Skinner believed that behavior could be modified using rewards and punishments.

Positive reinforcement can be an effective tool for learning in various contexts, including at home, school, workplace, and other areas of life. This article explores positive reinforcement, how it works, and when it can be most effective. 

What Does Positive Reinforcement Mean?

Positive reinforcement involves using rewards to strengthen behavior and increase the likelihood that it will occur again. It can include rewards such as desired items, praise, or other things the individual finds enjoyable. 

In this case, the “positive” in positive reinforcement refers to the addition of a desired reward following a behavior. Reinforcement refers to any type of action or reward that increases the chance that the behavior will happen again.

History of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement was introduced in the 1950s by B.F. Skinner as part of his theory of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a learning process in which behavior is modified through reinforcement and punishment.

Skinner based his approach to learning on Thorndike’s law of effect, which stated that the consequences of a behavior influence whether it will be repeated.

The Law of Effect: Thorndike’s law of effect suggests that behaviors followed by desired outcomes are more likely to happen again. Conversely, behaviors followed by undesired outcomes are less likely to happen.

Since it was first introduced as part of the behavioral movement in psychology, positive reinforcement has become a mainstay in schools, homes, workplaces, and other areas. 

Like other behaviorists, Skinner believed it was unnecessary to consider a person’s thoughts, feelings, or motivations to help them learn. He felt that focusing only on environmental influences and observable behaviors could produce the desired outcomes.

Types of Reinforcement

Four different types of reinforcement can influence behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement is used to increase or strengthen a desired behavior by adding something rewarding following a behavior
  • Negative reinforcement:  Negative reinforcement increases a desired behavior by removing an unpleasant stimulus after the behavior has occurred.
  • Positive punishment: Punishment decreases or suppresses undesired behaviors by introducing an unpleasant stimulus.
  • Negative punishment (also known as extinction): Negative punishment (or extinction) is used to weaken a behavior by removing the reward or stimulus associated with it.

It can be helpful to remember that ‘positive’ means adding something, and ‘negative’ means taking something away.

Positive Reinforcement vs. Positive Punishment

In operant conditioning, using the term ‘positive’ does not mean something is necessarily good. In this context, positive refers to the addition of something.

So positive reinforcement means adding a desirable reward that increases a behavior. Positive punishment, on the other hand, adds an undesirable consequence that decreases a behavior.

Rewarding a child with their favorite candy for cleaning up their mess is an example of positive reinforcement. Spanking is an example of a positive punishment. (Remember, this does not mean that ‘positive’ means good.)

Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement

Both positive and negative reinforcement increase a behavior, but they go about it differently. As noted above, positive reinforcement relies on adding a desired outcome, whereas negative reinforcement works by taking away an undesired outcome.

For example, a teacher might cancel a mid-term exam if students submit all of their assignments on time. By removing the undesired stimulus (the mid-term exam), the teacher increases the likelihood that students will finish and turn in all their homework.

Types of Positive Reinforcement

Different types of reinforcers can be used to encourage the behavior. The type that works best for any situation can vary. 

  • Natural reinforcers: This type of reinforcement is a natural consequence of an action. For example, if a child finishes working on an assignment early, they may have extra time to play when they are done. This is a natural consequence of the behavior.
  • Token reinforcers: This type of positive reinforcer involves rewarding the individual with points, stickers, or another form of token. These tokens can then be exchanged later for some type of desired reward.
  • Tangible reinforcers: These are specific physical rewards given after a desired behavior has been performed. Money, treats, and toys are a few examples.
  • Social reinforcers: Another type of positive reinforcer involves providing some form of social approval following a desired behavior. A teacher praising a student for doing a good job on a project is an example of a social reinforcer.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement can be utilized in a range of different settings. A few examples include:

Animal Training

If you have ever taught a dog to sit, you probably utilized positive reinforcement. In this classic application, you reward the desired behavior while ignoring undesirable behaviors.

Every time animals engage in the desired behavior, they get a reward. In this case, the trainer would utilize a tangible reward such as a treat or a small bit of food.

Classroom Behavior 

Positive reinforcement is also often utilized in classroom setting to encourage desirable behavior. Educators may rely on a variety of positive reinforcement strategies, such as:

  • Using sticker charts to positively reinforce a behavior they want to see, which is an example of a token reinforcer
  • Giving students extra time to play if they stay on task and finish their assignments on time, which is an example of a natural reinforcer
  • Praising students for demonstrating good behavior, such as raising their hand and waiting to be called on, which is an example of a social reinforcer
  • Offering candy or other rewards for accomplishing a task, which is an example of a tangible reinforcer

Schedules of Positive Reinforcement

Skinner also found that reinforcement schedules also had an impact on the strength and rate of a response. When using positive reinforcement to teach a behavior, you can use either continuous or partial reinforcement.

Continuous Positive Reinforcement

Continuous positive reinforcement involves rewarding a behavior every single time it occurs. This can be challenging and can lead to satiation, which makes the reinforcement less rewarding and effective. This approach is typically best used during the early stages of learning in order to establish a response.

Partial Positive Reinforcement

Once a response has been established, you might then switch to partial positive reinforcement. There are four different schedules of positive reinforcement.

  • Fixed ratio schedule: This would involve delivering positive reinforcement after a specified number of responses. For example, you might offer a reward after every five correct responses.
  • Fixed interval schedule: This approach involves giving a positive reinforcement after a specified period of time. For example, you might deliver a reward after every five minutes.
  • Variable ratio schedule: This involves giving a reward after a variable number of responses. 
  • Variable interval schedule: This approach involves giving a positive reinforcement after a varied amount of time has elapsed. 

Each schedule can have different effects on behavior. Fixed ratio schedules lead to steady response rates. Fixed interval schedules lead to rapid responding near the end of the interval and slower responding after a reward has been delivered.

Variable ratio schedules are more unpredictable, leading to high and steady response rates. Variable interval schedules, on the other hand, lead to slow but steady rates of responding.

How Effective Is Positive Reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement can be a highly effective and useful tool to help teach and modify behaviors. However, it needs to be used appropriately.

Research has shown that in classroom settings, positive reinforcement can help improve student behavior and encourage helpful social skills. Social reinforcers can also play a role in encouraging behavior among school-age children. 

However, it is important to recognize the potential for satiation as well as the risk of triggering the overjustification effect. Certain types of rewards, particularly food or other material items, are more likely to lead the learner to become satiated. This makes the reward less reinforcing and can hamper learning.

When rewarding behaviors that a learner already has the desire to perform, it can reduce intrinsic motivation, a phenomenon known as the overjustification effect.

Tips for Using Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is popular as both a positive parenting and classroom tool. Research suggests that it can be highly effective in helping kids learn beneficial social skills and age-appropriate behaviors. 

Some tips that can help make positive reinforcement more effective:

Deliver reinforcement immediately after the behavior: Positive reinforcement is most effective when the reinforcement is delivered quickly after the behavior occurs.

Reinforce progress: The goal is not to just reinforce the ideal, end-goal behavior. Instead, offer reinforcement for behaviors that are progressive approximations toward the ultimate goal. This is an example of how positive reinforcement can be used to shape behavior.

Make sure the reinforcer is appropriate: Choose a positive reinforcer that is right for the situation and the learner. 

Be consistent: During the initial stages, you might opt for continuous reinforcement. Once the response has been established, switch to partial reinforcement and be consistent to avoid losing the association.

Summary

Positive reinforcement is an important tool for learning. It can be highly effective when utilized appropriately. First introduced by the behaviorist B. F. Skinner as part of his theory of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement continues to play an essential role in many areas, including parenting, education, occupational settings, and other areas.

References

American Academy of Pediatrics. Positive reinforcement through rewards.

Levy, A., DeLeon, I. G., Martinez, C. K., Fernandez, N., Gage, N. A., Sigurdsson, S. Ó., & Frank-Crawford, M. A. (2017). A quantitative review of overjustification effects in persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities: Overjustification and intellectual disabilities. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 50(2), 206–221. https://doi.org/10.1002/jaba.359

Sprouls, K., Mathur, S. R., & Upreti, G. (2015). Is positive feedback a forgotten classroom practice? Findings and implications for at-risk students. Preventing School Failure: Alternative Education for Children and Youth, 59(3), 153–160. https://doi.org/10.1080/1045988X.2013.876958

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