Bad Reinforcement! Very, very bad- wait, that’s not right!

Recently I read an article which summarized Applied Behavior Analysis as using “positive reinforcement to get aggressive behaviors under control.” Positive reinforcement-positive! Is that all we can use now?! Negative reinforcement is always discriminated against. Even Sheldon Cooper misused the term, confusing it with punishment. To help alleviate the poor social stigma which burdens pitiable little Negative Reinforcement, I will attempt to summarize who Negative Reinforcement really is. (BTW, you may find a very similar rant under the “Punishment” section. But I will attempt to stay focused for now.)

Culturally, we hear “negative” and we think “bad.”  However, scientists, mathematicians, and engineers have been surrounded by a mathematical culture for the majority of their education and career (i.e. many, many years). This is the definition of the “negative” we speak of here. “To take away, remove, or subtract,” that’s all the term negative refers to. It can be a powerful tool to take something away: have you ever had too much work to do or too many bills to pay? Taking away, completing, or finishing some of those tasks might feel good. It just might offer some relief to your stress. This is the role of negative reinforcement.

Negative Reinforcement to the Rescue

Negative reinforcement is the removal of a stimulus which leads to an increase of a behavior. This type of reinforcement is on par with positive reinforcement. Both types of reinforcement are natural occurrences in our everyday lives. In the field of education, negative reinforcement is a strong way to encourage a student to increase desired behaviors, albeit often mislabeled.

Let’s try out some scenarios:

It is Thanksgiving dinner and the ENTIRE family is over to eat your home cooked meal. This is your first all-on-your-own Thanksgiving dinner. Everyone is smiling and having a wonderful time. You scoop a spoonful of your delicious green bean casserole and begin to place it on Jimmy’s plate, forgetting for a moment that he does NOT like green food. Jimmy looks at you, a terrified don’t-make-me-eat-that look in his eye. He shyly whispers “no, thank you.” You are on your parenting game tonight and, with reflexes like a cat, divert the spoonful of green bean casserole to your plate. Removing the casserole from his plate increases Jimmy’s “no, thank you” behavior.

The above example shows how Negative Reinforcement came to the rescue. A situation arose where an undesirable stimulus was removed as a consequence to a socially appropriate behavior. Jimmy did not want to eat green bean casserole, he kindly declined the food and the food was removed. This led to an increase in Jimmy’s kindly-declining-undesired-food behavior. That, my friends, is Negative Reinforcement and its amazing powers.

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Pesky Negative Reinforcement

Can it be a burden as well? Of course! Reinforcement, whether positive or negative, is not biased. It will not work better on socially appropriate behaviors than on socially inappropriate behaviors. Reinforcement loves all behaviors which it follows and will continue to increase that behavior until it is extinguished (Don’t worry- that’s another post.)

Kathy was late for work. She had an important meeting and did not have a cushion for the slower drivers on the freeway. As is typical in these moments, a car daring to drive 3 miles under the speed limit was in her way, in the fast lane (gasp!). Kathy, irritated with the wrong-doings of this driver, honked her horn- loudly and persistently. The driver of the other car received the message and moved over. Kathy sped off to work and her likelihood of honking at other slow drivers increased.

Negative Reinforcement is at work in this scenario as well. Another driver caused Kathy to drive slow. She honked her horn and then the car moved (removing the blockage in the roadway). Kathy will continue to honk her horn at slow drivers unless the honking becomes unsuccessful- although I would be fearful of what the replacement behavior would be.

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