Reinforcement Definition and Examples in Psychology

(Last Updated On: May 7, 2023)

Reinforcement definition: In psychology, reinforcement refers to a process where behavior is strengthened or increased by the presentation or removal of a stimulus.

Reinforcement is a key concept in behaviorism, a school of psychology that emphasizes the role of the environment in shaping behavior. According to behaviorists, behavior is learned through the consequences that follow it, and reinforcement is an essential tool for shaping and modifying behavior.

Types of Reinforcement

Two main types of reinforcement can increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement 

Positive reinforcement involves the presentation of a desirable stimulus following a behavior, which increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. For example, a student who receives praise or a good grade for completing an assignment is more likely to complete future assignments.

Positive reinforcement involves adding an incentive that makes a behavior more likely to occur.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an unpleasant stimulus following a behavior, which also increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. For example, a child who can stop doing chores after finishing homework is more likely to complete homework promptly.

Negative reinforcement involves removing something to make a behavior more likely to occur.

Primary vs. Secondary Reinforcement

Primary and secondary reinforcement are two types of reinforcement that can be used to shape and modify behavior.

  1. Primary reinforcement: Primary reinforcement refers to a type of reinforcement that is inherently rewarding or satisfying, such as food, water, or other basic biological needs. Primary reinforcement is also sometimes called “unconditioned reinforcement” because it does not require any learning or conditioning to be effective.
  2. Secondary reinforcement: Secondary reinforcement refers to a type of reinforcement that is not inherently rewarding but becomes associated with a primary reinforcer through learning or conditioning. Examples of secondary reinforcement include money, grades, praise, and other social rewards. Secondary reinforcement is also sometimes called “conditioned reinforcement” because it requires conditioning or learning to become effective.

In both cases, reinforcement is used to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior occurring again in the future. Primary reinforcement is often used to establish a behavior initially, while secondary reinforcement is used to maintain the behavior over time. 

For example, a child may be initially motivated to learn to read by the satisfaction of successfully decoding a word (primary reinforcement) but later motivated to continue reading by the promise of a good grade or praise from a teacher (secondary reinforcement).

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Uses for Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a powerful tool that can be applied in various real-world settings to shape and modify behavior. Here are some examples of how reinforcement can be applied in the real world:


In education, teachers can use reinforcement to increase desired behaviors in students. For example, teachers might praise or reward students who participate in class, complete homework assignments on time, or achieve good grades.


In business settings, reinforcement can increase productivity and job satisfaction among employees. For example, employers might offer bonuses or other rewards to employees who meet or exceed performance targets.


In sports, coaches can use reinforcement to improve performance and motivation among athletes. For example, coaches might praise or reward athletes who perform well in practice or games.


In health settings, reinforcement can encourage healthy behaviors such as exercise, healthy eating, and medication adherence. For example, doctors might provide praise or other rewards to patients who follow their treatment plans and achieve desired health outcomes.


In parenting, reinforcement can be used to shape and modify behavior in children. For example, parents might praise or reward children who complete chores or exhibit positive social behaviors.

Animal Training

Reinforcement is commonly used in animal training to teach new behaviors or modify existing ones. For example, animal trainers might use food or other rewards to teach a dog to sit or to perform tricks.

Reinforcement can be a powerful tool for shaping behavior. Knowing how it works can be useful in a variety of settings, such as education, parenting, and business management.

Reinforcement In Therapy

Reinforcement is commonly used in therapy to shape and modify behavior in individuals with various psychological disorders. Here are some ways reinforcement is used in therapy:

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Positive reinforcement: Positive reinforcement involves rewarding desired behaviors to increase the likelihood that they will occur again in the future. In therapy, positive reinforcement might involve providing praise, compliments, or other rewards to patients who exhibit positive behaviors or make progress toward their treatment goals.

Token economies: Token economies involve providing patients with tokens or points for exhibiting desired behaviors, which can then be exchanged for rewards. This approach is often used in inpatient psychiatric settings to promote positive behaviors among patients.

Contingency management: Contingency management involves using tangible rewards, such as gift cards or vouchers, to reinforce desired behaviors. This approach is often used to treat substance use disorders, where patients might receive rewards for remaining abstinent or attending counseling sessions.

Factors That Affect Reinforcement

There are several factors that can influence how people respond to reinforcement, including:

  1. Timing: The timing of reinforcement can have a significant impact on how effective it is. Reinforcement that is provided immediately after a behavior is more effective than reinforcement that is delayed.
  2. Frequency: The frequency of reinforcement also plays a role in its effectiveness. Reinforcement that is provided consistently is more effective than reinforcement that is provided intermittently.
  3. Magnitude: The size or magnitude of the reinforcement can also influence how effective it is. Larger rewards are generally more effective than smaller rewards.
  4. Individual differences: People vary in their responsiveness to reinforcement, and individual differences such as personality traits, motivation, and past experiences can all influence how people respond to reinforcement.
  5. Culture: Cultural values and norms can also influence how people respond to reinforcement. For example, some cultures may emphasize social recognition and praise as a form of reinforcement, while others may prioritize material rewards.
  6. Satiation: Reinforcement can become less effective if the person becomes satiated or bored with the reward. This can be addressed by varying the type of reinforcement or by using intermittent schedules of reinforcement.

The schedule of reinforcement that is used to determine the timing and frequency of reinforcement has a significant impact on rate and strength of response.

History of Reinforcement

Reinforcement has a rich history in psychology, with roots tracing back to the early 20th century. Here is a brief overview of the history of reinforcement in psychology:

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Thorndike’s Law of Effect

In 1898, Edward Thorndike conducted experiments with cats and puzzle boxes, observing that the cats learned to escape the boxes more quickly over time through trial and error. He proposed the “law of effect,” which stated that behaviors followed by satisfying consequences are more likely to be repeated in the future.

Skinner’s Operant Conditioning

In the 1930s and 1940s, B.F. Skinner expanded on Thorndike’s work and developed the theory of operant conditioning. He observed that behaviors that are reinforced (rewarded) tend to increase in frequency, while behaviors that are punished tend to decrease in frequency. Skinner also introduced the concept of shaping, in which behaviors are gradually modified through the use of reinforcement.


Skinner’s work helped to establish behaviorism as a dominant school of psychology in the mid-20th century. Behaviorists believed that all behavior could be explained through operant and classical conditioning principles and that internal mental processes were not relevant to the study of behavior.

Cognitive Psychology

In the 1960s and 1970s, cognitive psychology emerged as a new school of thought focused on the internal mental processes that influence behavior. However, the principles of reinforcement and conditioning continue to be important in modern psychology and are used in various settings, including education, therapy, and business management.


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Shahan TA. Conditioned reinforcement and response strength. J Exp Anal Behav. 2010;93(2):269–289. doi:10.1901/jeab.2010.93-269