B-4: Define and provide examples of positive and negative reinforcement contingencies ©

Target Terms: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement 

“Positive” and “negative” in science refer to something being added or taken away. These terms have nothing to do with values (such as “good” versus “bad”).

Positive Reinforcement 

Definition: A response is followed by the presentation of a stimulus that results in an increase in behavior under similar circumstances. The stimulus acted as positive reinforcement.

Example in everyday context: You go to your nearby café and order your favorite specialty coffee drink. You give money to the barista and they hand you your coffee. You have learned that ordering a specific drink (response) is followed by the delivery of an amazing caffeine-related sensory experience (presentation of the stimulus).  You are likely to order the same thing in the future.

Example in clinical context: A behavior analyst is conducting mand training with a client. Each time the client makes the correct request for an item, (e.g., saying or signing “water”) the behavior analyst delivers the item. This serves as positive reinforcement for the client, and they continue to say or sign “water” when they would like some water. 

Example in supervision/consultation context: A supervisor is observing their supervisee conduct a manding session with a student. The supervisor provides specific praise to the supervisee in the moment (“I love how quickly you honored that mand! So important.”) The supervisee continues to conduct subsequent manding sessions with fidelity.   

Why it matters: Ethical guidelines for behavior analysts state that interventions should include reinforcement strategies. Behavior analysts should continue to conduct preference and reinforcer assessments with their clients to identify what items and activities can serve as positive reinforcers. It is very important to understand that how we feel about a something does not necessarily predict whether it will function as reinforcement, as other variables, such as competing reinforcers, must be considered. (For example, just because I like peanut butter cookies does not mean that I would be willing to get up at 2:45 AM to make some.) Also, how others feel about something is definitely not indicative of whether it will be effective as reinforcement! (For example, I tend to increase my behavior is my supervisor praises it; however, for others, praise can be neutral or aversive.)

Negative Reinforcement 

Definition: A response is followed by the removal of a stimulus that results in an increase in behavior under similar circumstances. The stimulus acted as negative reinforcement.

Example in everyday context: You wake up in the morning with a terrible cramp in your neck. You turn your neck right and left to crack it, which causes the pain to go away. Each time you wake up with a cramp in your neck, you will engage in the response (cracking your neck) to remove the pain. 

Example in clinical context: A group of patients are engaging in leisure time in the milieu. One of the patients begins to play loud music from a stereo. Another patient becomes agitated and yells, “Turn that off right now!” The patient playing the music turns off the stereo. The response (yelling) was immediately followed by the removal of the stimulus (loud music), which will likely increase the patient’s behavior to yell again when the music is too loud. 

Example in supervision/consultation context: A behavior analyst is teaching a student how to say “no” to unwanted items using picture exchange cards. When the behavior analyst presents an item that the student does not want, the student gives the behavior analyst the “no” picture card. The behavior analyst removes the unwanted item. This increases the student’s behavior of using the “no” picture card when presented with a non-preferred item. 


Why it matters: Through negative reinforcement, people escape or avoid aversive events. Negative reinforcement is very powerful and is sometimes the main paradigm at play in clinical situations involving treatment of interfering behavior.

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