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 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.