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“Reinforcement is the process in which a behavior is strengthened by the immediate consequence that reliably follows its occurrence” (Miltenberger, 2012, p. 61). Reinforcers can include food, blessings, attention, protection, and many other things. Compare an instance of reinforcement that you find in the Bible with the description of reinforcement in your textbook.
Positive and Negative Reinforcement
There are two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. It is extremely important to remember that both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are processes that strengthen a behavior; that is, they both increase the probability that the behavior will occur in the future. Positive and negative reinforcement are distinguished only by the nature of the consequence that follows the behavior.
Positive reinforcement is defined as follows.
The occurrence of a behavior
is followed by the addition of a stimulus (a reinforcer) or an increase in the intensity of a stimulus,
which results in the strengthening of the behavior.
Negative reinforcement, by contrast, is defined as follows.
The occurrence of a behavior
is followed by the removal of a stimulus (an aversive stimulus) or a decrease in the intensity of a stimulus,
which results in the strengthening of the behavior.
A stimulus is an object or event that can be detected by one of the senses, and thus has the potential to influence the person (stimuli is the plural form of the word stimulus). The object or event may be a feature of the physical environment or the social environment (the behavior of the person or of others).
In positive reinforcement, the stimulus that is presented or that appears after the behavior is called a positive reinforcer. (A positive reinforcer often is seen as something pleasant, desirable, or valuable that a person will try to get.) In negative reinforcement, the stimulus that is removed or avoided after the behavior is called an aversive stimulus. (An aversive stimulus often is seen as something unpleasant, painful, or annoying that a person will try to get away from or avoid.) The essential difference, therefore, is that in positive reinforcement, a response produces a stimulus (a positive reinforcer), whereas in negative reinforcement, a response removes or prevents the occurrence of a stimulus (an aversive stimulus). In both cases, the behavior is more likely to occur in the future.
Consider Example 8 in Table 4-1. The mother’s behavior of buying her child candy results in termination of the child’s tantrum (an aversive stimulus is removed). As a result, the mother is more likely to buy her child candy when he tantrums in a store. This is an example of negative reinforcement. On the other hand, when the child tantrums, he gets candy (a positive reinforcer is presented). As a result, he is more likely to tantrum in the store. This is an example of positive reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement is not punishment. Some people confuse negative reinforcement and punishment (see Chapter 6). They are not the same. Negative reinforcement (like positive reinforcement) increases or strengthens a behavior. Punishment, in contrast, decreases or weakens a behavior. The confusion comes from the use of the word negative in negative reinforcement. In this context, the word negative does not mean bad or unpleasant, but simply refers to the removal (subtraction) of the stimulus after the behavior.
Numerous examples of positive and negative reinforcement abound in our everyday lives. Of the eight examples in Table 4-1, five illustrate positive reinforcement and four illustrate negative reinforcement (example 8 illustrates both).
Read each example in Table 4-1. Which ones are examples of positive reinforcement? Which are examples of negative reinforcement? Explain your selections. The answers may be found in Appendix B at the end of this chapter.
Positive and negative reinforcement both strengthen behavior. The important thing to remember about positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement is that both have the same impact on the behavior: They strengthen it. Reinforcement is always defined by the effect it has on the behavior (Skinner, 1958). This is called a functional definition. Consider the following example: A child completes an academic task independently and his teacher walks up to his desk, says “Good job,” and pats him on the back.
Is this scenario an example of positive reinforcement?
In this case, we cannot tell because not enough information is presented. This situation would be an example of positive reinforcement only if, as a result of the praise and pat on the back, the child was more likely to complete academic tasks independently in the future. Remember, this is the functional definition of reinforcement: The consequence of a behavior increases the probability that the behavior will occur again in the future. For most children, praise and teacher attention are reinforcers that would strengthen the behavior of completing academic tasks. However, for some children (some children with autism, for example), teacher attention may not be a reinforcer. Therefore, praise and a pat on the back would not strengthen the behavior (Durand, Crimmins, Caufield, & Taylor, 1989). Durand and his colleagues demonstrated that to determine whether a particular consequence will be a reinforcer for a particular person, you have to try it out and measure its effect on the behavior. Working with children who had severe developmental disorders, they compared two consequences for their academic performance. Sometimes the children received praise for correct performance, and sometimes correct performance resulted in a brief break from the academic task. Durand and colleagues found that praise increased correct performance for some children but not for others, and that the brief break (removal of the academic demand) increased correct performance for some children but not for others. Durand emphasized the importance of identifying reinforcers by measuring their effects on the behavior.
As you have learned, reinforcement can involve the addition of a reinforcer (positive reinforcement) or the removal of an aversive stimulus (negative reinforcement) following the behavior. In both cases, the behavior is strengthened. For both positive and negative reinforcement, the behavior may produce a consequence through the actions of another person or through direct contact with the physical environment (e.g., Iwata, Vollmer, & Zarcone, 1990; Iwata, Vollmer, Zarcone, & Rodgers, 1993). When a behavior produces a reinforcing consequence through the actions of another person, the process is social reinforcement. An example of social positive reinforcement might involve asking your roommate to bring you the bag of chips. An example of social negative reinforcement might involve asking your roommate to turn down the TV when it is too loud. In both cases, the consequence of the behavior was produced through the actions of another person. When the behavior produces a reinforcing consequence through direct contact with the physical environment, the process is automatic reinforcement. An example of automatic positive reinforcement would be if you went to the kitchen and got the chips for yourself. An example of automatic negative reinforcement would be if you got the remote and turned down the volume on the TV yourself. In both cases, the reinforcing consequence was not produced by another person.
One type of positive reinforcement involves the opportunity to engage in a high-probability behavior (a preferred behavior) as a consequence for a low-probability behavior (a less-preferred behavior), to increase the low-probability behavior (Mitchell & Stoffelmayr, 1973). This is called the Premack principle (Premack, 1959). For example, the Premack principle operates when parents require their fourth-grade son to complete his homework before he can go outside to play with his friends. The opportunity to play (a high-probability behavior) after the completion of the homework (low-probability behavior) reinforces the behavior of doing homework; that is, it makes it more likely that the child will complete his homework.
When defining negative reinforcement, a distinction is made between escape and avoidance. In escape behavior, the occurrence of the behavior results in the termination of an aversive stimulus that was already present when the behavior occurred. That is, the person escapes from the aversive stimulus by engaging in a particular behavior, and that behavior is strengthened. In avoidance behavior, the occurrence of the behavior prevents an aversive stimulus from occurring. That is, the person avoids the aversive stimulus by engaging in a particular behavior, and that behavior is strengthened.
In an avoidance situation, a warning stimulus often signals the occurrence of an aversive stimulus, and the person engages in an avoidance behavior when this warning stimulus is present. Both escape and avoidance are types of negative reinforcement; therefore, both result in an increase in the rate of the behavior that terminated or avoided the aversive stimulus.
Distinguishing between escape and avoidance behavior. The distinction between escape and avoidance is shown in the following situation. A laboratory rat is placed in an experimental chamber that has two sides separated by a barrier; the rat can jump over the barrier to get from one side to the other. On the floor of the chamber is an electric grid that can be used to deliver a shock to one side or the other. Whenever the shock is presented on the right side of the chamber, the rat jumps to the left side, thus escaping from the shock. Jumping to the left side of the chamber is escape behavior because the rat escapes from an aversive stimulus (the shock). When the shock is applied to the left side, the rat jumps to the right side. The rat learns this escape behavior rather quickly and jumps to the other side of the chamber as soon as the shock is applied.
In the avoidance situation, a tone is presented just before the shock is applied. (Rats have better hearing than vision.)
After a number of instances in which the tone is presented just before the shock, the rat starts to jump to the other side of the chamber as soon as it hears the tone. The tone is the warning stimulus; the rat avoids the shock by jumping to the other side as soon as the warning stimulus is presented.
Reinforcement is a natural process that affects the behavior of humans and other animals. Through the process of evolution, we have inherited certain biological characteristics that contribute to our survival. One characteristic we have inherited is the ability to learn new behaviors through reinforcement. In particular, certain stimuli are naturally reinforcing because the ability of our behaviors to be reinforced by these stimuli has survival value (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 1987; 2007). For example, food, water, and sexual stimulation are natural positive reinforcers because they contribute to survival of the individual and the species. Escape from painful stimulation or extreme levels of stimulation (cold, heat, or other discomforting or aversive stimulation) is naturally negatively reinforcing because escape from or avoidance of these stimuli also contributes to survival. These natural reinforcers are called unconditioned reinforcers because they function as reinforcers the first time they are presented to most human beings; no prior experience with these stimuli is needed for them to function as reinforcers. Unconditioned reinforcers sometimes are called primary reinforcers. These stimuli are unconditioned reinforcers because they have biological importance (Cooper et al., 1987; 2007).
Another class of reinforcers is the conditioned reinforcers. A conditioned reinforcer (also called a secondary reinforcer) is a stimulus that was once neutral (a neutral stimulus does not currently function as a reinforcer; i.e., it does not influence the behavior that it follows) but became established as a reinforcer by being paired with an unconditioned reinforcer or an already established conditioned reinforcer. For example, a parent’s attention is a conditioned reinforcer for most children because attention is paired with the delivery of food, warmth, and other reinforcers many times in the course of a young child’s life. Money is perhaps the most common conditioned reinforcer. Money is a conditioned reinforcer because it can buy (is paired with) a wide variety of unconditioned and conditioned reinforcers throughout a person’s life. If you could no longer use money to buy anything, it would no longer be a conditioned reinforcer. People would not work or engage in any behavior to get money if it could not be used to obtain other reinforcers. This illustrates one important point about conditioned reinforcers: They continue to be reinforcers only if they are at least occasionally paired with other reinforcers.
Nearly any stimulus may become a conditioned reinforcer if it is paired with an existing reinforcer. For example, when trainers teach dolphins to perform tricks at aquatic parks, they use a handheld clicker to reinforce the dolphin’s behavior. Early in the training process, the trainer delivers a fish as a reinforcer and pairs the sound of the clicker with the delivery of the fish to eat. Eventually, the clicking sound itself becomes a conditioned reinforcer. After that, the trainer occasionally pairs the sound with the unconditioned reinforcer (the fish) so that the clicking sound continues to be a conditioned reinforcer (Pryor, 1985). A neutral stimulus such as a plastic poker chip or a small square piece of colored cardboard can be used as a conditioned reinforcer (or token) to modify human behavior in a token reinforcement program. In a token reinforcement program, the token is presented to the person after a desirable behavior, and later the person exchanges the token for other reinforcers (called backup reinforcers). Because the tokens are paired with (exchanged for) the backup reinforcers, the tokens themselves become reinforcers for the desirable behavior. (See Kazdin  for a review of research on token reinforcement programs.) Chapter 22 explains token reinforcement programs in more detail.
When a conditioned reinforcer is paired with a wide variety of other reinforcers, it is called a generalized conditioned reinforcer. Money is a generalized conditioned reinforcer because it is paired with (exchanged for) an almost unlimited variety of reinforcers. As a result, money is a powerful reinforcer that is less likely to diminish in value (to become satiated) when it is accumulated. That is, satiation (losing value as a reinforcer) is less likely to occur for generalized reinforcers such as money. Tokens used in a token economy are another example of a generalized conditioned reinforcer because they are exchanged for various other backup reinforcers. As a result, people can accumulate tokens without rapid satiation. Praise is also a generalized conditioned reinforcer because praise is paired with numerous other reinforcers across a person’s lifetime.
Book….Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures
Raymond G. Miltenberger University of South Florida