This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 05 table of contents.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior is reinforced by removal of a stimulus. The word "negative" does not mean "unpleasant." It means a stimulus is removed or "subtracted" from the situation as a form of reinforcement.

What is negative reinforcement? What does the word "negative" refer to? Why do students often seem to misunderstand the concept?

Negative reinforcement is one of the most misunderstood concepts in all of introductory psychology. Students commonly assume that the word negative refers to something unpleasant, so they jump to the conclusion that negative reinforcement is a form of punishment. But negative reinforcement is not a form of punishment. Negative reinforcement is a form of reinforcement. It increases the frequency or probability of a behavior by "taking away something bad."

A colleague (Dr. Gary McClure) suggested that students should think of arithmetic. Positive means something is added, while negative means something is taken away. Negative reinforcement is the type of reinforcement in which something is taken away.

Here is a simple example of negative reinforcement. Suppose your teacher said you could skip the final exam by studying an extra chapter and taking a quiz on it. You might study an extra chapter (your studying behavior would be made more frequent) because of the promise of an unpleasant stimulus being removed (no final exam). For additional examples see the later section on using negative reinforcement.

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