The last time you’ll need + & – reinforcement explained

The last time you’ll need + & – reinforcement explained

Positive and negative reinforcement is incredibly hard to explain! Almost every time I’ve had professors, supervisors, and peers try to define it, it inevitably turns into a group discussion of each person trying to contribute a better way of explaining it comprehensibly. I’ve even watched therapists teach it 100% wrong during parenting classes.

Understanding this accurately is very important.

1) Positive reinforcement is giving something that increases a particular behavior

2) Negative reinforcement is taking away something that increases a particular behavior.

3) Punishment is something that decreases a particular behavior

This part is the most important and where everyone gets confused. Do NOT consider what you are administering when defining it positive/negative reinforcement or punishment. It is only defined by the RESULT it has on the behavior.

Let’s have some examples.

  • Amy gets an A on her test so dad lets her go to the concert on Friday.
    • What is this? — We don’t know yet. We won’t know until the next test to see if Amy tries hard to get an A again so she will be able to go to the next concert. If she does, then it’s positive reinforcement.
      If Amy tries the same as she normally would with or without the concert, then it’s nothing at all. It did not effect the particular behavior.
      If Amy tries less hard than she normally would, the concert is labeled a punishment because it decreases the behavior.

The dad’s action of allowing her to go to the concert would normally be automatically labeled positive reinforcement. You can’t do that. You have to look at the result it has.


  • Todd comes home late and mom asks “where were you”? Todd tells the truth and says he was driving around with his buddies. Mom gets mad and yells at him.
    • Mom’s goal is to get Todd to come home on time. The important question is what happens next time. Todd comes home late again and mom asks “where were you?” This time he lies and makes up a good excuse to avoid being yelled at. Was mom’s yelling a punishment that decreased his behavior of coming home late? No. It didn’t work at all. It increased an additional negative behavior of lying.

It is important to understand that the result your actions have on another’s behavior is the only part that matters. Not whether you think you’re using rewards or punishments. Yelling isn’t helping mom get what she wants. She needs to try something else. I’d suggest a discussion with Todd about what type of reward would convince him to make it home by curfew. Maybe he earns the car for a day (+R), or he earns his way out of doing dishes for the night (-R). Keep trying things to find something that gets you the result you want. Don’t keep doing the same thing that isn’t working just because it sounds good. Don’t keep yelling because you feel like you should or because that’s what your parents did.


  • James is quiet and doesn’t like to talk about his day or his feelings with anyone. His girlfriend asks him 100 questions in attempts to get him to open up.
    • The more questions she asks, the more he shuts down. This is punishment because it decreases the particular behavior. His girlfriend needs to stop drilling him because it does not increase his sharing. She needs to try something different; maybe just sitting and listening when he does talk and allow him to open up as much as he would like without her asking questions. He may talk more, he may not. The important part is she needs to experiment, not get stuck on one idea that she feels should work.

There are countless examples I could give, but hopefully this is enough to get you thinking.


Overall, the important conclusion is to ask yourself if your actions are getting you the result you want. Are they increasing or decreasing the negative behavior? If not, change and try something else. Don’t stick to doing something “bad” and calling it a punishment or giving something “good” and calling it a reward. You don’t get to choose what effect it has on the other person. Keep trying different stuff until you find something effective.  If you’re at a loss for ideas or unaware of how you’re encouraging or discouraging the behaviors of others around you, work with a therapist to learn more about yourself and gain greater self-awareness.