It helps to explore some examples of negative reinforcement, a concept of operant conditioning that people frequently misunderstand. Learn what negative reinforcement is and see how it works in practice.
Negative reinforcement is about encouragement. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports that it has to do with removing a negative or unpleasant stimulus from a situation in response to someone's action. Because the negative stimulus is removed, the person or animal wants to keep doing the action that removed it.
It's also important to understand what negative reinforcement is not:
- Negative reinforcement is not a negative thing. Instead, it's about removing a negative thing.
- Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment or a negative consequence for an action.
- Negative reinforcement is not the opposite of positive reinforcement. Both types of reinforcement encourage a behavior.
- Negative reinforcement does not reinforce negative behavior. It reinforces the behavior that removes the negative stimulus.
Because negative reinforcement can be a confusing concept, examples are the best way to understand how it works. You'll see negative reinforcement in a variety of contexts.
Teachers can use negative reinforcement to motivate students and change their behavior. For example, a teacher can eliminate that night's homework if kids study hard and accomplish a lot in class. If this happens multiple times, the kids will consistently work harder and be more productive while in the classroom.
At work, negative reinforcement can boost productivity or sales. For instance, at a manufacturing company, employees must attend work five days a week, eight hours a day.
However, to encourage greater productivity, a supervisor might reduce work hours for the final week of the month. If employees meet a production goal, they won't have to spend as much time at work.
You'll also find negative reinforcement in effect at home. Imagine you sleep in the same room with someone who snores loudly. It keeps you awake every night, and you're exhausted. You buy a pair of earplugs and try sleeping while wearing them. The earplugs remove the sound of the snoring, so you begin to use them every night.
Negative reinforcement is a possible way to train animals too. For instance, teaching a dog to heel may involve keeping tension on the dog's leash as you walk together. The dog does not enjoy this tension and may even find it uncomfortable.
However, if the dog walks closer to the trainer's heel, the tension is reduced on the leash. The dog is more comfortable and learns to walk closer to the trainer when commanded to heel.
Parenting offers many great opportunities for negative reinforcement in real life. For example, imagine a toddler who doesn't like sleeping through the night. He wakes multiple times every night and cries until his mother comes in to rock him back to sleep.
He is effectively training his mother by negative reinforcement because every time she comes in to rock him to sleep, he stops crying.
Another everyday example of negative reinforcement comes when you're driving. Imagine you drive through rush hour traffic to get to work. Your commute is very stressful and takes you two hours every morning. You get frustrated and try a different route to get there.
This route has very little traffic, and you make it to work in 45 minutes. You get the same results later in the week. To save time, you start taking this new route everyday. Removing the negative stimulus of the bad traffic changes your behavior.
Imagine you are a very jealous person in a relationship. You constantly worry that your partner is unfaithful, so much so that it's difficult for you to concentrate on other things. One day, you discover you can track your partner's movements on his or her phone. You do this and are reassured your partner is not cheating on you.
The next day, you repeat the behavior and feel better again. Soon, each day, you are checking up on your partner. While this may not be a positive behavior in a relationship, it does remove the negative stimulus of the anxiety that your partner is unfaithful.
Negative reinforcement is just one way to change behavior. In fact, the study of behaviorism involves many experiments and different behavior modification strategies. Read up on all the research to figure out which type of reinforcement works best for your situation.