You are slacking off on your phone at the office and your boss walks by with a withering stare or a dry comment, prompting you to get back to work. You feel uncomfortable, as you’ve been called out by your boss, and get back to your computer. However, days later, you catch yourself slacking off yet again.
This is an example of negative reinforcement. In this scenario, your boss has provided a consequence that will inhibit you from performing the same mistake again. The next time you have the urge to watch YouTube or TikTok at work, the negative feeling of your boss’ disdain will likely remind you to stay on task.
A common misconception surrounding the term negative reinforcement is that a punishment must be applied to get rid of unwanted behaviour. That is not the case – in fact, reinforcement and punishment work in opposition. The key lies in their different end results. When a punishment is applied, it is usually to weaken or decrease the offending behaviour. When negative reinforcement is applied, it is in an attempt to increase or strengthen a target behaviour.
Negative reinforcement is a type of operant conditioning prevalent in almost all aspects of our lives. A child who throws a tantrum over a plate of vegetables will continue to scream if their parent takes away the plate to calm the child down. This kind of learned behaviour is easy to pick up but may be difficult to quit or reverse if you are not aware of its existence.