It is a well-documented fact that humans learn from their environments. Behavioral psychologists have studied this idea for nearly a century. One such behaviorist, Dr. B.F. Skinner, broke away from the rest and focused extensively on why humans behave in certain ways and whether or not those behaviors could be modified through positive and negative reinforcement. Dr. Skinner had believed that, given the proper reward, humans would repeat desired behaviors.


Dr. Skinner's theory was based on Edward Thorndike's Law of Effect, which states that responses that produce a satisfying effect in a situation are more likely to be repeated than responses that produce a negative effect in the same situation. Thorndyke's theory only sought to develop associations between events. Skinner expanded his theory to include the potential to learn from the consequences of those responses.

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Operant Conditioning

Skinner's theory, called operant conditioning, states that it is what comes after a behavior that is important to the manipulation of the behavior, as opposed to what comes before it, as other behaviorists had suggested. Skinner thought that the presence of some kind of reinforcement would affect the likelihood that of a repeated behavior.

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Skinner's Experiments

Dr. Skinner devised a set of laboratory experiments, with rats and a "Skinner box" with a lever in the side. Rats were placed inside the Skinner boxes. As they wandered, they bumped the lever, which resulted in either food (positive reinforcement) or the removal of an electric current (negative reinforcement). The rats quickly learned to go straight for the lever for the reward.

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Negative Reinforcement in Our Daily Lives

There are plenty of examples of negative reinforcement that humans see in their daily lives but might not recognize. The annoying beep that sounds until everyone puts on their seat belt is the ideal example. The unpleasant element (the beeping sound) is present as soon as people enter the car, and the beeping sound stops as soon as the desired behavior (putting on the seat belt) occurs.

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Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement

Skinner's experiments focused on two types of reinforcement to increase the rate of repeated behaviors: positive and negative. With positive reinforcement, a reward, like food or money, is given after a desired behavior occurs. With negative reinforcement, an unpleasant element like an electric current or loud noise, is present in the environment from the start. When the subject performs the desired behavior, the reward is the removal of the unpleasant element.

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Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Punishment and negative reinforcement can appear similar at first glance, but the two actions are actually opposites. The difference lies in the intent of the action. The intent of punishment after a behavior is to stop the behavior. The intent of negative reinforcement is to continue or strengthen a behavior. Punishment is the addition of something unpleasant as a consequence, while negative reinforcement is the removal of something unpleasant as a consequence.

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Reinforcement Timing

The timing of the reinforcement may play a role in its effectiveness. Studies suggest that a variable interval ratio schedule of reinforcement is more successful in strengthening behaviors than continuous reinforcement. Imagine training a dog to sit, and the dog sits every time. Instead of rewarding the dog continuously, so that he only sits when the trainer has a treat in hand, the dog gets treats unpredictably so long as he always sits on command. He will continue to sit because he is never sure when he might get a treat. The dog has been trained using a variable interval ratio of reinforcement.

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Real-World Impact

Although Skinner performed his experiments on rats in a lab setting, his discoveries about negative reinforcement had an impact on the rest of the world. He was able to point out that humans and animals learn from their environment through feedback like positive and negative reinforcement in much the same way. His experiments also suggested that human behavior, like that of animals, can be easily manipulated.

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Recent Research

Research suggeststhat negative reinforcement still has relevant, real-world applications. A 2011 study done with non-compliant teens, particularly those with development conditions, suggested that the combined use of positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement is effective at increasing compliance for simple tasks.

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There is a reason more experiments feature positive reinforcement to manipulate behavior than negative reinforcement: the latter can present ethical concerns. Negative reinforcement is characterized by unpleasant elements in the environment that are only removed once a desired behavior is performed. The presence of these elements and the strain of performing tasks can cause unnecessary stress, fear, and trauma in human and animal subjects.

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