July 4th, 2009
Misusing the term “negative reinforcement” is a common error. Typically, when people use “negative reinforcement” they are trying to say something about making a behaviour less common: “Getting fined for filing your taxes late is some serious negative reinforcement!” But this is incorrect. Here are the relevant terms with definitions:
Positive reinforcement: strengthening a tendency to respond in a certain manner by presenting a pleasant event.
Example: Giving an ice cream cone to a child after they clean their room. (The behaviour reinforced is cleaning the room.)
Negative reinforcement: strengthening a tendency to respond in a certain manner by removing an aversive agent.
Example: A three year old shouts “Please can I have an ice cream please please please please please please (etc.)” over and over until the ice cream is given to them, at which point they stop shouting. (The behaviour reinforced is giving the child ice cream.)
So the key is that in both cases, a certain behaviour is being reinforced, in other words rewarded with the goal of making it more common. This is the opposite of what most people mean when they say “negative reinforcement,” which is actually…
Punishment: A noxious or unpleasant stimulus imposed on someone in order to reduce the frequency of a particular behaviour.
Example: Shouting at a child after they drop their ice cream cone on the floor. (The behaviour being punished is making a mess.)