Reinforcement Theory

The Basic Idea

Do you remember back in elementary school, when you received stickers and smiley faces on your worksheets? Or maybe you were occasionally chosen for class monitor. It always made you feel a warm glow, like you were doing something right. On the other hand, the feeling of receiving a timeout or missing recess was dreadful.

These various rewards and punishments are all examples of reinforcement theory at work. Though we can remember examples all the way back from elementary school, reinforcement theory  still influences our lives every day.

Put simply, reinforcement theory suggests that a behavior can be strengthened when good events follow it, and reduced when undesirable events follow it. It relies on the idea that behavior is influenced by its consequences. For instance, when action A results in a desirable outcome, one is more likely to do action A; when action B results in an unpleasant outcome, one is less likely to do action B. You’re more likely to study for your spelling test after getting your teacher’s praise; you’re less likely to pull your friend’s hair after getting a stern lecture.

Reinforcement theory is a framework, also known as operant conditioning, detailed in the chart below:

Reinforcement theory framework

Reinforcement aims to encourage a behavior, whereas punishment aims to reduce a behavior. Both reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative. A positive stimulus entails adding desirable effects, while negative entails removing undesirable effects of a behavior.

I think, as much as people moan at things like award ceremonies, it gives people role models. It provides real positive reinforcement that you can be who you are and still massively achieve.

– Jack Monroe

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Key Terms

Behaviorism: The systematic study of external behavior

Operant: Behavior performed by an individual as a response

Reinforcement: Encouragement of a behavior

Punishment: Discouragement of a behavior

Negative: Removing a behavior’s consequences

Positive: Adding consequences to a behavior


Earlier developments in the field of conditioning focused on simply the association between stimuli and the influence it has on involuntary responses. You likely know Pavlov’s dogs, who started to salivate when they heard the sound of his assistant’s footsteps, long before the food was in front of them. This became known as classical conditioning: a stimulus A and a resulting response, such as food and salivation, becomes associated with a different, neutral stimulus, such as the sound of the assistant approach. B becomes associated with A over time, and as a result, prompts the same response as A. Eventually, the dogs learn that approaching footsteps means food, and salivate over the footsteps.

Classical conditioning was developed during a period of psychology that was primarily concerned about an individual’s internal needs and motivations. Maslow and Herzberg completed related work during this period.

For behaviorists, the psychoanalytical approach was dissatisfying because there were no external, observable phenomena that allowed its techniques  to be verified and tested. In the early 1900s, Edward Thorndike concretized the Law of Effect, suggesting that individuals are more likely to perform actions that have satisfying rewards. This marked a significant outward shift in behaviorism; subsequent research began examining the external effects of an action and how they influence choices, as opposed to theorizing how internal responses were influenced by past events. More specifically, Thorndike proposed that if the link between an action and the satisfying effect is strengthened, the action will become more likely in the future.

  1. F. Skinner further differentiated between the means in which stimulus and action affect behavior, deviating even more from the early studies in classical conditioning. As per Skinner’s framework, Pavlov’s work studied stimuli. In the above example, stimulus B (footsteps) becomes a conditioned stimulus that generates the same involuntary action (salivating). Skinner studied how the action itself is conditioned through its own effects rather than other stimuli. He termed this action “operant” instead of “response” to highlight that the action was not just a response to a stimulus, but a voluntary action that is tangibly linked to its effects.1 This led to his monumental framework: operant conditioning. Skinner, as well as the behaviorist paradigm, would come to define a key evolutionary step in psychology, as reinforcement theory began to move psychology away from it’s psychoanalytic roots and closer towards the empirical, scientific paradigm that it is today.

The story of reinforcement is the result of trying to understand the interplay between an action and its consequences, specifically how the probabilistic strengthening of this link operates.


Ivan Pavlov

A Russian physiologist known for his early research on classical conditioning. Pavlov did significant research in behaviorism – the systematic study of behaviors – and conditioning. Classical conditioning is notably different from operant conditioning: classical conditioning deals with involuntary behavior, whereas operant conditioning involves modifying voluntary behavior. Nevertheless, Pavlov was a major influence to all behaviorists, including practitioners of operant conditioning, like Skinner.

Edward Thorndike

An American psychologist and pioneer in the field of behaviorism. Thorndike developed a more empirically driven approach in assessing behavior. He formulated the Law of Effect, which stated that an action followed by a desirable effect strengthens the link between that action and the following effect, thereby making the action more likely to recur. While this may seem obvious to us now, Thorndike’s law of effect set the stage for empirical testing of reinforcement to occur.

Burrhus Frederick Skinner

An American psychologist best known for his seminal work on behavior, B.F. Skinner is known as the father of operant conditioning. He believed that people’s behavior is a result of how they have been conditioned by the consequences of their past behavior.


Reinforcement theory can be a powerful way to promote positive behavior and is thus important to any team or organization. It is often used to achieve a team’s objectives, such as enhancing productivity or improving communication. Another way to visualize reinforcement theory is as a two-dimensional table, as shown below with examples in each quadrant:

Reinforcement Punishment
Positive Rewarding employees for an exceptional task Criticizing employee for a poor task
Negative Removing difficulties for a task after seeing an employee is doing well Not giving an employee a bonus, which they would have otherwise expected

Reinforcement can also act as an enhancer for other behavioral techniques. For example, antecedents, such as warnings or providing information in an attempt to encourage certain behavior, are insubstantial on their own. However, when used in conjunction with reinforcing consequences, they are significantly more effective.2 Thus when addressing workforce problems, modifying the consequences of actions can serve to enhance verbal suggestions.

Schedules of conditioning:

When building his theory of operant conditioning, Skinner found that his conditioning’s effectiveness was significantly altered by the schedule it was employed in. This led Skinner to develop a key concept in behaviorism, which is now known as schedules of reinforcement. The theory boils down to a simple, practical conclusion: to assure behavioral change, some reinforcement schedules may be better suited than others for a particular problem.

A reinforcement schedule can be continuous, meaning reinforcement will occur every time the target behavior happens. Another option is having reinforcement occur in fixed intervals, which are typically based on a certain period of time elapsing or after the behavior has been performed a certain number of times. Finally, a reinforcement schedule can reinforce behavior at variable intervals. In this case, the time or occurrences of the behavior are not fixed. In essence, an individual is rewarded on a random basis, regardless of behavior.


Skinner was averse to examinations of the mind, discussions of goals, and internal motivations.3 This perspective itself is a major point of disagreement in the psychology community, since it eliminates a whole angle of looking at behavior.

Some academics and studies have taken issue with the perceived efficacy of reinforcement theory. As early as 1994, it has been argued that behavioral therapists are increasingly adopting procedures supported by reinforcement theory that lack tangible empirical evidence of working in a clinical setting.4 They point out that there have even been instances in which such procedures have had a counterproductive effect, suggesting that these techniques “may actually reduce positive behaviors and increase resistance to change.”

For example, Dan Pink suggests that having incentive-driven policies is effective when the task at hand is clear cut with straightforward rules, but otherwise it “ dulls thinking and blocks creativity.” In contrast, intrinsic motivation, feeling purposeful, and having autonomy may be better factors in increasing desirable behaviors. Strategies to encourage these behaviors could thus be more effective for complex tasks.5

Finally, reinforcement theory can inadvertently influence our judgment, such as when we make decisions based on past experiences and discard new or contradicting information in doing so.

Case Studies

Seat belt reminders in cars

While seat belts in cars have been mandatory since 1960, it was initially difficult to ensure that the mandate was being followed.6 After years of figuring out the best way to enforce the rule, the seat belt reminder sound found its way into most cars. When the driver and passengers have not buckled up and the car starts moving, the car beeps loudly and relentlessly, until the seat belts are finally clicked. This annoying beeper is a classic example of negative reinforcement: after the target action is performed, the negative stimuli is removed. To avoid this annoyance in the future,we’re encouraged to put on the seat belt as early as possible next time we get in the car.

Examining the effect of positive reinforcement and punishment on cigarette use

When it comes to smoking, our experience with our first cigarette often dictates if we develop a dependence later on. In a 2018 study, researchers surveyed respondents on their feelings, reactions, and symptoms during the first few times they smoked. It was found that if our first cigarette was a positive experience, we tended to get hooked later on. This finding strongly suggests that reinforcement could be a key driver of habitual smoking, as we have come to associate it with positive feelings. On the other hand, they found that an unpleasant first experience, which acts as a positive punishment,   did not significantly decrease the smoking frequency later in life. Accordingly, positive initiation experiences could predict cigarette use with some accuracy, whereas negative experiences could not.7

Related TDL Content

Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement

Understanding the difference between positive and negative reinforcement is critical in using these behavioral catalysts correctly. To get a deeper dive into each reinforcement aspect of operant conditioning, check out these two guides that focus on positive and negative reinforcement.

Using Behavioral Insights to Stay Motivated at Work

Concepts from reinforcement theory often come into play in the workplace, and being aware of them can help us adopt helpful work habits. This article discusses how reinforcements like acknowledgement, appreciation, and knowing the impact of our work can be used to motivate ourselves and others.


  1. Skinner, B. F. (1937). Two Types of Conditioned Reflex: A Reply to Konorski and Miller. Journal of General Psychology, Vol. 16, No. 1, 272-279.
  2. A. (2016, February 1). Reinforcement Theory of Motivation – IResearchNet. Psychology.
  3. Banaji, M. R. (2011). Reinforcement Theory. The Harvard Gazette. Retrieved from
  4. Viken, R. & McFall, R. (1994). Paradox Lost: Implications of Contemporary Reinforcement Theory for Behavior Therapy. Current Directions in Psychological Science. Retrieved from
  5. Pink, D. (2009). The Puzzle of Motivation. TED Global. Retrieved from
  6. N.a. (2019). The Seat Belt Reminder – What’s that noise all about? News, IEE. Retrieved from

About the Authors

Oorja Majgaonkar

Oorja is a former content creator with a passion for behavioral science. She previously created content for The Decision Lab, and her insights continue to be valuable to our readers.

Sarah Chudleigh

Sarah Chudleigh

Sarah Chudleigh is passionate about the accessible distribution of academic research. She has had the opportunity to practice this as an organizer of TEDx conferences, editor-in-chief of her undergraduate academic journal, and lead editor at the LSE Social Policy Blog. Sarah gained a deep appreciation for interdisciplinary research during her liberal arts degree at Quest University Canada, where she specialized in political decision-making. Her current graduate research at the London School of Economics and Political Science examines the impact of national values on motivations to privately sponsor refugees, a continuation of her interest in political analysis, identity, and migration policy. On weekends, you can find Sarah gardening at her local urban farm.

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