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What Is Negative Reinforcement

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Question: What Is Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is a term described by B. F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning. In negative reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by stopping, removing or avoiding a negative outcome or aversive stimulus.

Aversive stimuli tend to involve some type of discomfort, either physical or psychological. Behaviors are negatively reinforced when they allow you to escape from aversive stimuli that are already present or allow you to completely avoid the aversive stimuli before they happen.

One of the best ways to remember negative reinforcement is to think of it as something being subtracted from the situation. When you look at it in this way, it may be easier to identify examples of negative reinforcement in the real-world.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement

Learn more by looking at the following examples:

  • Before heading out for a day at the beach, you slather on sunscreen in order to avoid getting sunburned.

  • You decide to clean up your mess in the kitchen in order to avoid getting in a fight with your roommate.

  • On Monday morning, you leave the house early in order to avoid getting stuck in traffic and being late for class.

Can you identify the negative reinforcer in each of these examples? Sunburn, a fight with your roommate and being late for work are all negative outcomes that were avoided by performing a specific behavior. By eliminating these undesirable outcomes, the preventative behaviors become more likely to occur again in the future.

Negative Reinforcement versus Punishment

One mistake that people often make is confusing negative reinforcement with punishment. Remember, however, that negative reinforcement involves the removal of a negative condition in order to strengthen a behavior. Punishment, on the other hand, involves either presenting or taking away a stimulus in order to weaken a behavior.

Consider the following example and determine whether you think it is an example of negative reinforcement or punishment:

Timmy is supposed to clean his room every Saturday morning. Last weekend, he went out to play with his friend without cleaning his room. As a result, his father made him spend the rest of the weekend doing other chores like cleaning out the garage, mowing the lawn and weeding the garden, in addition to cleaning his room.

If you said that this was an example of punishment, then you are correct. Because Timmy didn't clean his room, his father assigned a punishment of having to do extra chores.

When Is Negative Reinforcement Most Effective?

Negative reinforcement can be an effective way to strengthen a desired behavior. However, it is most effective when reinforcers are presented immediately following a behavior. When a long period of time elapses between the behavior and the reinforcer, the response is likely to be weaker. In some cases, behaviors that occur in the intervening time between the initial action and the reinforcer are may also be inadvertently strengthened as well.

According to Wolfgang (2001), negative reinforcement should be used sparingly in classroom settings, while positive reinforcement should be emphasized. While negative reinforcement can produce immediate results, he suggests that it is best suited for short-term use.

The type of reinforcement used is important, but the frequency and schedule used also plays a major role in the strength of the response. Learn more about this topic in this article on schedules of reinforcement.


Kanazawa, S. (2010). Common Misconceptions about Science VI: "Negative Reinforcement." Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201001/common-misconceptions-about-science-vi-negative-reinforcem

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

Wolfgang, Charles H. (2001). Solving Discipline And Classroom Management Problems: Methods and Models for Today?s Teachers; U.S.A, John Wiley and Sons.

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Kendra Cherry

Kendra Cherry
Psychology Guide

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