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What Is Positive Reinforcement?

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Image illustrates the experiments of Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov.Pavlov found that sounding a bell everytime a dog was about to be given food eventually caused a reflex flow of saliva, which later persisted even when no food was produced. Nick Vedros & Assoc./The Image Bank/Getty Images
Question: What Is Positive Reinforcement?
Answer:

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 examples of 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 actually reinforcing the misbehavior. In this case, the better solution would be to use positive reinforcement when the child is actually 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 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 with 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, pays attention in class, and 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 the presentation of an actual, physical reward 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 the presentation of positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be. If a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be. It also becomes more likely 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

Positive reinforcement: LRBI checklist. Utah State University. www.usu.edu/teachall/text/behavior/LRBIpdfs/Positive.pdf

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

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

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