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Reinforcement

By: Desiree Garcia, Precision ABA Behavior Technician



Parents

This week’s topic will cover reinforcement and its two types: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

So, what is reinforcement?

Reinforcement is something (an object or event) in your child’s environment that makes it more likely they will behave that way in the future. In other words, this object or event increases a behavior. Let’s say your child is climbing up onto the counter to get one of the delicious chocolate chip cookies you baked earlier. You hurry over there and take the cookie from them, letting them know they can’t have the cookie until they finish their dinner. They start to cry. Then their cries turn into a loud, full-blown tantrum. After a few minutes of this, you decided you’ve had enough and give them the cookie. Your child immediately stops crying. In the future, it is more likely that your child will cry and throw a tantrum when they want something. In this example, giving them the cookie after a few minutes of crying and screaming has reinforced or increased the chances of them crying and screaming to get what they want next time.

Similarly, because your child immediately stopped their tantrum, you are more likely to give them the cookie (or whatever they want) after they cry or throw a tantrum in the future.

This example demonstrated reinforcement of 2 behaviors through 2 different types: positive and negative.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement happens when an object or event is added to your child’s environment after they behave a certain way, making it more likely they will behave that way in the future. For example, let’s say you tell your child to say, “Mama,” and they say “Mama” back. You tell them “Yes!” and give them hugs and tickles. In this example your added praise and attention after they said “Mama” reinforced that response, making it more likely they will say it again in the future!

Another example of positive reinforcement would be getting paid after going to work. Getting that paycheck at the end of the week or seeing your direct deposit go through makes it more likely that you will go back to work on Monday. The money is added to your environment, i.e., your bank account. Your paycheck increases your behavior of going to work again.

Negative Reinforcement

Contrastingly, negative reinforcement happens when an object or event is removed from your child’s environment after they behave a certain way, making it more likely that they will behave that way in the future. For instance, let’s say your child is afraid of spiders. After seeing one, they scream. You run over to them to see what’s wrong, then you quickly get a shoe and whack it, picking it up with a tissue, and throwing it in the garbage. In this example, you removed the spider from their environment after they screamed for help. In the future, it is more likely that they will scream again when they see a spider hoping someone will come and kill it. You killing the spider reinforced or increased their response of screaming.

Another example of negative reinforcement would be going to a concert and hearing a loud, screeching sound coming from the amp. When you hear it, you immediately cover your ears with your hands. After you cover your ears, the sound is removed from your hearing (or at least it’s not as loud). In the future, it is more likely that you will cover your ears when you hear another loud sound. In other words, the removal of the loud sounds increases your behavior of covering your ears.

In general, positive and negative reinforcement increase the likelihood of behaving a certain way in the future. Through a combination of learning and contact with reinforcement, we have all learned to do things that allow us to contact the things we like (attention and money) as well as avoid things we dislike (spiders and loud sounds).

Why is reinforcement important?

In general, reinforcement is the most widely applied principle of behavior analysis and is very important in shaping how we behave. Reinforcement is effective in changing your child’s behavior. Whether you want a behavior to decrease or increase, knowledge of reinforcement is an effective tool in achieving this. It is also a principle that we use all the time in our day-to-day life!



ABA Practitioners

History of Reinforcement

Research on reinforcement dates to studies in the 1920s conducted by Edward Thorndike, applying this concept to learning in organisms. B.F. Skinner continued his research and published numerous studies on reinforcement, which was later followed by the publication of his first book in 1938, The Behavior of Organisms. In this book, Skinner discusses that behavior can be conditioned or learned through two types: respondent conditioning or operant conditioning. To keep the content of this post simple and relevant, we will briefly go over operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is the principle developed by Skinner that proposes a behavior or response can be taught through the principle of reinforcement. The subsequent behavior or response is called operant behavior. Operant behavior is controlled by its consequences, or whatever stimulus follows the behavior. It is critical that we learn about reinforcement as its application can provide many opportunities for our learners to grow and make efficient progress over time!

So what is reinforcement?

Reinforcement is when a stimulus, presented after a behavior, increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring in the future. In other words, reinforcement strengthens behavior. An example of this includes a dog sitting on command and being given a treat. In the future, when the dog’s owner says, “Sit” the probability of the dog sitting will increase. In this case, the treat was the source of reinforcement, or reinforcer, that strengthened the dog’s sitting. Another example would be walking out into the rain and immediately taking out your umbrella to prevent yourself from getting more wet. In the future, it is more likely that you will open your umbrella when it rains again. In this example, removal of the rain reinforced, or strengthened, your behavior of opening your umbrella.

In both of these examples, reinforcement is demonstrated by increasing the likelihood of each of the behaviors occurring in the future. Additionally, each example demonstrates the two different types of reinforcement: positive and negative.


Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement occurs “when a response is followed by the presentation of a stimulus and as a result, similar responses occur more frequently in the future” (Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 2007). In other words, it is positive reinforcement if the source of reinforcement, or reinforcer, is added to the environment following the behavior. The earlier example of the dog sitting demonstrated positive reinforcement. After the dog sat, he was given a treat. The treat was the added stimulus to his environment following the behavior of sitting, increasing the probability that he will sit on command in the future.

Another example of positive reinforcement would be getting paid after going to work. Getting that paycheck at the end of the week or seeing your direct deposit go through increases the likelihood that you will go back to work on Monday. The money is added to your environment, i.e., your bank account. Although it is not as immediate as the treat, that paycheck still strengthens your behavior of going to work again.


Negative Reinforcement

Contrastingly, negative reinforcement occurs “when a response is followed by the removal of a stimulus and as a result, similar responses occur more frequently in the future” (Cooper, Heron, and Heward, 2007). That is, negative reinforcement involves a stimulus being removed from an individual’s environment. In the earlier example of opening your umbrella after it begins to rain, this demonstrated negative reinforcement. More specifically, the rain was the stimulus removed, which strengthened your behavior of opening your umbrella.

Another example of negative reinforcement would be taking a shower. The stimulus would be the dirt on your body. After taking a shower, the dirt is removed from your body through washing it with soap. In the future, it is more likely that you will take a shower with soap after your body gets dirty. The removal of dirt strengthens your behavior of taking a shower with soap.

Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the likelihood of you repeating the behavior in the future. Through a combination of learning and contact with reinforcement, we have all been conditioned to behave in ways that are shaped by our environment.


Why is reinforcement important?

In general, reinforcement is the most widely applied principle of behavior analysis and is very important in shaping how organisms behave. Reinforcement is effective in changing behavior. Knowing how to use reinforcement, the different schedules of reinforcement, as well as withholding reinforcement (when necessary) are also important when it comes to changing behavior (this will all be discussed in later posts). In general, whether the target is behavior-reduction or skill acquisition, practitioners incorporate the principle of reinforcement in all of their programs for their learners. It is also a principle that we use all the time in our day-to-day life sometimes without even realizing it!


References

Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.




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