The Basic Idea
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.
Operant Conditioning: the process of learning through reinforcement and punishment defined and studied by behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner.
Stimulus: a stimulus is any object or event that elicits a sensory or behavioral response.
Systematic Desensitization: a method of decreasing a fear response by slowly introducing the feared stimulus in progressive stages.
Extinction: a reverse or breaking of the link between a conditioned stimulus and response.
In the 1920s, Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was thought to have been the first to use the word “reinforcement” with respect to learned behavior. However, he used the term to describe the strengthening of an already-learned but weakening response, not the modern definition of selecting and strengthening new behaviors. In popular use today, negative reinforcement is often thought of as a synonym for rewarding certain behaviours, but this is an inaccurate understanding of the term’s technical usage. It refers to a dimension of behavior, and not the person, that is strengthened. Similarly, negative reinforcement is often used as a synonym for punishment. This is again contrary to modern technical use; it was B.F. Skinner who first used the term this way, in his 1938 book, The Behavior of Organisms. By 1953, however, he followed others in the field by employing the word punishment, and he re-cast negative reinforcement for the removal of aversive stimuli.1
Skinner demonstrated his operant conditioning theory by observing animals in an operant conditioning chamber – an experimental environment known as a Skinner box. The box contains a lever or button that an animal can press for food or water. Originally, the experiment was set up so that when the animal tried to get the food by simply pushing the button, it received a small but uncomfortable electric shock. The animal needed to press a second lever to stop the electric current and allow it to get the food without the shock. Over time, the animal learned to stop the current immediately using the lever.2 The type of reinforcement learning where an offending item can be avoided by taking a certain action is incorporated into our daily lives and continues to be a popular object of study in many behavioural science and social fields.
Pavlov was a Russian psychologist who pioneered classical conditioning and introduced the idea of reinforcement through his famous experiments with dogs. Using a bell as the conditioned stimulus to induce salivation in his animals, Pavlov rang the bell, then fed the dogs. After doing this repeatedly, the pairing of food and bell eventually established the dog’s conditioned response to salivate whenever the bell rang. This is an example of positive conditioning or reinforcement which stems from Skinner’s study on operant conditioning.
Developed in the 1930’s, American behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner introduced the concept of negative reinforcement under his theory of operant conditioning. His area of research concentrated on how behavior was affected by its consequences. He developed the Skinner box to conduct various experiments on a rat and used various reinforcers to support his theory on operant conditioning. The chamber allowed the careful study of the principles of modifying behavior through reinforcement and punishment and has remained a crucial resource for researchers studying behavior.
Sometimes, our unconscious use of negative reinforcements achieve the opposite effect of what we intend. A simple example would be when parents unknowingly encourage their children to throw tantrums at dinner by taking away the offending food item. In instances when the technique is employed poorly or without forethought, negative reinforcement could cause harm on an individual, group, and societal level.
On an individual level, anxiety and other mental health issues are most commonly dealt with by using various forms of negative reinforcement. Without seeking proper medical care, those suffering from anxiety or other traumatic events will attempt to avoid situations that make them feel anxious. This could be done through drug use, alcohol use, or avoidance in the form of escape conditioning. Individuals may learn that through other activities they can circumvent their mental triggers of trauma. Not only is this an unproductive method of coping, the repetition of this kind of behaviour can have long lasting impacts that are difficult to reverse. Over time, they will get caught in a cycle of negatively reinforcing or even abusing certain behaviours and end up adopting other unhealthy habits.3
When it comes to psychological techniques that are able to manipulate a person’s behaviour, we have to employ caution. As we’ve seen, we can unconsciously impact behaviour beyond what we intend. A common place that such strategies are used is in the workplace. In analyses of toxic, destructive, and unproductive workplaces, a core problem identified is a leader who exercises a tyrannical style of management, resulting in a climate of fear in the workplace. Leaders who like to micromanage, point out mistakes, or monitor their employees could experience a backfiring of their leadership strategies. Their constant hovering and critiquing could result in a drop of productivity due to fear or inability to work. In turn, when employees realize that such bullying behaviours are tolerated, this repeated negative reinforcement will create a workplace culture of fear and doubt.4,5
If we consider the forces of negative reinforcement in our daily lives, we’ll likely realize that it is present in many of our addictions, ranging from common daily activities like video games to more serious addictions like gambling. According to a 2014 study on reward sensitivity in pathological gamblers by Sztainert et al., there is an aspect of negative reinforcement in gambling. They find some gamblers are motivated to play as a means of coping with negative life events that yield negative emotions, or what we might colloquially call “escaping” problems in life. Thus, gamblers who engage in play for its negative reinforcing qualities are using it as both an “escape” and an activity to fill a void.6
Negative reinforcement theory plays a central role in the study of addiction and drug dependence. The consequence of drug overuse is very significant to the addict and their community; it can have grave effects on the health of the individual, the safety of the community and the functioning of the economy and society. However, substance use is a behavior that is difficult to reverse because it is persistently encouraged through negative reinforcement. The psychology of drug use is intimately connected to the biological and chemical effects on the body and mind. An addictive drug is intrinsically rewarding on a biochemical level and the possibly euphoric feelings function as a reinforcer of continued use. As the addiction develops, deprivation of the drug leads to withdrawal and craving. For example, drugs such as benzodiazepines, a type of tranquilizer, can cause anxiety and seizures during withdrawal. Cocaine withdrawal can cause depression and restlessness, while alcohol can cause tremors and seizures that last for days. These withdrawal symptoms can only be rapidly alleviated by taking the drug again. In addition, stimuli associated with drug use, such as the sight of a syringe or a location of use, can become associated with the intense reinforcement induced by the drug.7 Drug use, an undesired behavior, is therefore reinforced negatively when the aversive symptoms are taken away by taking another dose of the drug, causing relapses likely to occur.
Related TDL Resources
Interested in how the psychology of being rewarded plays out as an HR strategy in the workplace? Read this article by Jonny Gifford explores the science behind performance or reward related pay.
Reinforcement behavioural strategies extend beyond the laboratory to a real life application in this piece by Laura Bliss which aims to use the “nudge” theory of behavioral science—positive reinforcement and indirect hints to achieve desirable outcomes—to reduce single person trips and congestion.
If you are looking to establish new habits or to condition yourself towards or out of a certain behaviour, read this piece by Karine Lacroix to understand the stages of change using learned behavioural patterns