What Is Positive Reinforcement?

An example of positive reinforcement
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In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened.

One of the easiest ways to remember positive reinforcement is to think of it as something being added.

By thinking of it in these terms, you may find it easier to identify real-world examples of positive reinforcement.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement

Consider the following examples:

  • After you execute a turn during a skiing lesson, your instructor shouts out, "Great job!"
  • At work, you exceed this month's sales quota, so your boss gives you a bonus.
  • For your psychology class, you watch a video about the human brain and write a paper about what you learned. Your instructor gives you 20 extra credit points for your work.

Can you identify the positive reinforcement in each of these examples? The ski instructor offering praise, the employer giving a bonus, and the teacher providing bonus points are all positive reinforcers. In each of these situations, the reinforcement is an additional stimulus occurring after the behavior that increases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future.

An important thing to note is that positive reinforcement is not always a good thing. For example, when a child misbehaves in a store, some parents might give them extra attention or even buy the child a toy. Children quickly learn that by acting out, they can gain attention from the parent or even acquire objects that they want.

Essentially, parents are reinforcing the misbehavior. In this case, the better solution would be to use positive reinforcement when the child is displaying good behavior.

Different Types of Positive Reinforcers

There are many different types of reinforcers that can be used to increase behaviors, but it is important to note that the type of reinforcer used depends on upon the individual and the situation. While gold stars and tokens might be very effective reinforcement for a second-grader, they are not going to have the same effect on a high school or college student.

  • Natural reinforcers are those that occur directly as a result of the behavior. For example, a girl studies hard, she pays attention in class, and she does her homework. As a result, she gets excellent grades.
  • Token reinforcers are points or tokens that are awarded for performing certain actions. These tokens can then be exchanged for something of value.
  • Social reinforcers involve expressing approval of a behavior, such as a teacher, parent, or employer saying or writing "Good job" or "Excellent work."
  • Tangible reinforcers involve presenting actual, physical rewards such as candy, treats, toys, money, and other desired objects. While these types of rewards can be powerfully motivating, they should be used sparingly and with caution.

When Is Positive Reinforcement Most Effective?

When used correctly, positive reinforcement can be very effective. According to a behavioral guidelines checklist published by Utah State University, positive reinforcement is most effective when it occurs immediately after the behavior. The guidelines also recommend the reinforcement should be presented enthusiastically and should occur frequently.

  • The shorter the amount of time between a behavior and presenting positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be.
  • If a long period elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be.
  • The longer the time, the more likely it becomes that an intervening behavior might accidentally be reinforced.

In addition to the type of reinforcement used, the presentation schedule can also play a role in the strength of the response. Learn more in this article on schedules of reinforcement.

References

Utah State University. Positive reinforcement: LRBI checklist. http://iseesam.com/content/teachall/text/behavior/LRBIpdfs/Positive.pdf

The University of Minnesota. Positive reinforcement: A proactive intervention in the classroom. http://www.cehd.umn.edu/ceed/publications/tipsheets/preschoolbehavior/posrein.pdf

Skinner, B.F. Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan; 1953.

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