Negative reinforcement is not punishment [Updated]

by admin on August 3, 2010

Update: Incredibly, the day after I published this post, Dr. Lovaas died. I devoted a large part of my professional life to his teachings and came away a better person for it. I met Dr. Lovaas once and found him to be affable, approachable and an effective public speaker. RIP, doctor. You were brilliant.

This post is going to be a little “Inside Baseball,” so bear with me. Time and again I hear people, mostly parents, use “negative reinforcement” and “punishment” synonymously. I hold my tongue. I sit idly by.

I can’t anymore.

They are not the same. At long last, here is the difference between positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement and punishment.

Prior to my life as a professional nerd, I was a special ed. teacher. I spent over 10 years in a classroom of kids with autism and other developmental delays. I also have a scar on my right shin that will bear witness to those days. My classroom was a part of a residential school that implemented the Lovaas Method of Applied Behavior Analysis. Ole Ivar Lovaas and B.F. Skinner were our Steve Jobs and Jonny Ive. I even met Dr. Lovaas once. Shook his hand. Yeah, it was cool.

During my tenure as a teacher and ill-fated stint as a graduate student (dropped out 9 credits short of my M.Ed. in Intensive Special Needs. My parents are proud), I learned a thing or two about Behaviorism. Its most basic tenet is the concept of positive reinforcement.

Positive Reinforcement

What is positive reinforcement? If someone put this question to you, how would you answer? You might say an edible treat, or maybe a paycheck. Perhaps public, social praise (“Good job with the new TPS reports”) or nookie from your spouse. All of these can be examples of reinforcers if they meet the criteria of the actual definition:

Positive reinforcement is anything that increases the likelihood that a behavior will be preformed in the future.

In other words, you perform a behavior and are immediately given access to something desirable as a consequence. Making the connection between the two, you’re likely to perform that behavior again in hopes of receiving that same special something.

Here are a few concrete examples. First, a Seaworld employee wants to train a seal to “shake hands” with its flipper. The trainer knows that the seal loves to eat smelts. 1 During training, the seal is given a smelt whenever it extends its flipper to shake the trainer’s hand. Eventually it figures out what’s going on and will whip out that flipper to receive a smelt all on its own.

Of course, the technique isn’t limited to marine life. Many of us work 40 hours a week to receive a paycheck. My kids make their beds and I kiss them and tell them what a great job they’ve done. They enjoy the praise and affection from dad, so they’re likely to clean up again to get more kissie face.

Negative Reinforcement

Here’s where we get into trouble. Many believe that negative reinforcement, being “negative,” must be the opposite of its counterpart, positive reinforcement. And what’s the opposite of receiving something good? Why, receiving someting bad, right?


Here’s the definition of negative reinforcement:

Negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive stimulus.

In other words, you perform a behavior and consequently, something in the environment that you just can’t stand is taken away.

Here’s a concrete example. Imagine a young mom in a grocery store with a 2-year-old. It’s past lunch time, and Jr. is a little cranky. At the checkout line, he notices the rack of candy that’s conveniently placed at toddler eye-level 2. He asks mom for a candy bar.

She says no. He asks again. She refuses again. Jr. starts to whine, then squirm, then shout and finally noisily demand a candy bar. He’s wailing, red-faced, and the other shoppers have turned around to look. Finally, the mother breaks down and gives it to him. Jr. shuts up. He’s quiet.

In this scenario, mom is negatively reinforced by the presentation of the candy bar because it made the aversive stimulus — Jr.’s noisy, embarrassing fit — stop 3.

Here’s another example. Let’s say there’s a man who owns a real jalopy of  a car. One day he notices  a strange sound underneath the dashboard. He gives it a whack and the sound goes away. What do you think he’ll do the next time the sound returns? That’s right, he’ll give that dashboard a good, hard punch.


This one is easy.

Punishment is the application of an aversive stimulus.

For example, when you vandalize a car in Singapore, you get caned. Unfortunately, many people confuse punishment with negative reinforcement. But now you, dear reader, finally enlightened, will no longer make this error. If you stuck with this post all the way through, good job! Well done! Thank you! There’s your positive reinforcement for the day.

  1. I have no idea what seals love to eat. For all I know, I could have written “Big Macs” there. But I assume they like small fish, and smelt is the first one that came into my mind.
  2. Jerks
  3. If you want to get technical, and I know you do, both negative AND positive reinforcement take place in this scenario. While mom was negatively reinforced when Jr. shut his pie hole, Jr. was positively reinforced. Remember, you’re reinforcing the behavior that occurred immediately prior to the presentation of the reinforcer. In other words, Jr.’s tantrum behavior was reinforced with a candy bar. What will he do the next time he wants one in the store? Right. The lesson: Be mindful of what you’re doing, mom and dad!