Negative reinforcement involves taking away something that is very unpleasant when a person does something that we want. This encourages the behavior because the person feels relief whenever the behavior is repeated.
The whole goal of negative reinforcement is to increase the chances of someone doing an action again so that they can feel the relief over and over again.
Managers, parents, and coaches can all implement a negative reinforcement strategy. They will create a link between a desired action and something aversive being removed.
Negative reinforcement is often used in educational settings as well. For example, a teacher might reduce homework if students behave in class or do well on an exam.
Examples of Negative Reinforcement
- Temper tantrums – A child cries (unpleasant stimulus) until the parent removes the vegetables from the table (desired behavior). Parents are trained to remove vegetables to stop the crying.
- Homework Holiday – A teacher says they will not assign any homework this weekend (unpleasant stimulus) if the students behave in the playground (desired behavior). The children are incentivized to be well-behaved so they don’t get homework.
- Needy and Naughty – A child misbehaves (unpleasant stimulus) until the teacher gives them attention (desired behavior). When the teacher diverts their attention away, the unpleasant stimulus starts again.
- Recess when you’re Done – A teacher keeps students behind in class at recess time (unpleasant stimulus) until they finish their work (desired behavior).
- Working Off Detention – Misbehaving students have earned their class 20 minutes of detention at lunch (unpleasant stimulus). The teacher says that the students can work off the detention time by behaving for the rest of the day (desired behavior).
- Exercise as Unpleasant Stimulus – A PE teacher says if you get an A in the exam (desired behavior) then you won’t have to run laps on Friday (unpleasant stimulus).
- Teasing – A child learns that they are less likely to be teased (unpleasant stimulus) if they conform to the fashion of the year.
- Nagging your Sibling – A teenager wants his older brother with his drivers license to drive her to the mall. He refuses, so she nags him (unpleasant stimulus) until he agrees to drive her there (desired behavior).
- Public Shaming – At weekly staff meetings, the manager shames everyone who didn’t meet their goals (unpleasant stimulus). Staff members are incentivized to finish their work by deadlines (desired behavior) so the weekly public shaming will stop.
- Returning the Cell Phone – Parents have taken their child’s cell phone off her. If she behaves (desired behavior), then the children can get the cell phone back.
Negative Reinforcement Examples Explained
1. The Temper Tantrum
Teachers that work with toddlers have to have a lot of patience. The “terrible twos” can be… terrible. Children at this age cry very easily. They can get frustrated with lots of tasks, like putting on a coat or trying to do a simple puzzle.
Although children may not seem very bright at this age, they can be very clever and know how to get their way. For example, if a teacher puts some vegetables on a child’s plate at lunchtime, and that child does not want to eat those vegetables, the child may throw a quite vocal tantrum.
Crying loudly is a very unpleasant stimulus. So, the teacher immediately takes the veggies off the plate. Then, the child stops crying. This is a classic example of a toddler applying negative reinforcement to shape their teacher’s behavior.
Toddlers may only be two, but they’re smarter than they look.
2. No Homework on the Weekend if….
No one likes to do homework on the weekends. So, every Friday presents an opportunity for teachers to apply a little negative reinforcement in the classroom.
For example, a primary school teacher can explain to their students that if everyone is well-behaved on the playground, which means sharing toys and getting along with each other, then there will be no homework that weekend.
Immediately after recess, when the students have all returned from outside, the teacher can announce the homework status.
By removing the aversive stimulus of doing homework, the teacher has increased the goal behavior of sharing and getting along with each other.
3. Needy and Naughty
We often look at educational settings from only one perspective. But in reality, each scenario is more dynamic and several elements of operant conditioning can be operating simultaneously.
For example, when a student is being disruptive, the teacher will direct their attention toward that student. Then, when the student stops being disruptive, the teacher will withdraw that attention and move on to another student.
This scenario can be seen from two perspectives. On the one hand, the child’s disruptive behavior is being rewarded in the form of teacher-attention. Thus, increasing the likelihood of the student’s disruptive behavior occurring again.
On the other hand, when the teacher gives the student attention, the student starts to behave. The student’s disruptive behavior is the negative reinforcer, and the teacher’s attention is the goal behavior. So, when the goal behavior increases, the aversive stimulus is removed. Thus, increasing the likelihood of the teacher’s behavior occurring again.
4. Staying After Class Until Work is Finished
Getting students to complete their work on time is a constant battle for most teachers. Especially for some kids that are easily distracted and real busy bodies, they just can’t sit still long enough to complete their work.
This is when teachers have to rely on their knowledge of operant conditioning. For example, when it is time for recess the teacher may make some students stay inside to finish their work. When they complete the assignment that all of the other students have finished, then they can go outside to play too.
In this scenario, staying inside is the negative reinforcer; finishing the assignment is the goal behavior. So, when the students engage in the goal behavior, the negative reinforcer will be removed.
5. P.E. Class
Sometimes P.E. class is a lot of fun, and sometimes it isn’t. Playing kickball and volleyball are always exciting, but doing push-ups or running laps are not.
The ultimate goal of P.E. class is for students to develop skills such as hand/eye coordination and be healthy. Most school systems have health standards that students must meet, such as being able to do calisthenics for a certain period of time.
But being healthy is not just about physical health, it also means knowing about nutrition and healthy habits.
So, the P.E. teacher tells the class that each student that gets an A on the exam Friday will not have to run laps on Monday.
The negative reinforcer is running laps and the goal behavior is getting an A on the exam.
6. Reducing Household Chores
Most parents must endure two main dilemmas when they children become teenagers. One is paying for all the stuff they want, and the other is getting them to do their household chores.
When it comes to household chores, getting them done can be like pulling teeth. Teenagers just don’t want to do them. There are so many other important things to do in life, like texting friends and making Tik Tok videos.
So, a clever parent can establish a new system of “teenager management”. It works like this: If the teenager can find ways to make earn some of their own money, such as cutting grass or washing and waxing cars, then they can eliminate two of their least favorite chores.
With this system the parent is applying negative reinforcement. When the teenager increases their earning money behavior, the unpleasant stimulus of doing chores will be removed.
7. Going to the Dentist
Most kids absolutely do not want to go to the dentist. But, if they don’t practice proper oral hygiene, that is exactly what they will have to do.
So, parents can set up a behavioral chart system to shape their child’s behavior. First, take a sheet of paper and draw a daily chart on it that has at least two boxes for each day of the week. Each time the child brushes and flosses, they put a check-mark in the box.
At the end of three months, the parents count the number of times the child brushed and flossed at least twice a day. If a certain threshold score is obtained, then the child doesn’t have to go to the dentist.
The parents are increasing the goal behavior of proper oral hygiene by removing an unpleasant stimulus when that behavior is engaged.
8. Public Criticism from a Manager
No one likes to be criticized in public. It is embarrassing and if ever there was an example of an aversive stimulus, this would be one of them.
Unfortunately, some bosses use this tactic frequently when a member of the team underperforms. It’s not a highly recommended leadership style, especially in the 21st century, but it still exists in a lot of companies.
On the one hand, you can look at this scenario from the perspective of the public scolding being punishment for bad performance. On the other hand, from a different perspective it is an example of using negative reinforcement.
The employee will try harder to do well to avoid being criticized in front of colleagues. Here, he is engaging in active avoidance learning.
9. Removing Internet Time Use Restrictions
One key principle of all operant conditioning techniques is that the reinforcers have to be something that the individual values. Of course, these days there may be nothing a teenager values more than the internet. So, this is a very powerful reinforcer for parents to use to their advantage.
If parents want to increase their child’s sense of responsibility and helping out around the house, then they can use time on the internet.
For example, until a certain number of chores each week are completed, the teenager is forbidden to use the internet. This should spark any teenager into immediate action.
In this scenario, the negative reinforcer is restricted internet access and the goal behavior is doing household chores.
When the chore-doing behavior increases, then the restrictions are removed.
10. Nagging an Older Sibling
Nagging is a very unpleasant conditioned stimulus. Some people will do almost anything (the conditioned response) to get the nagging to stop. So, this can be a very useful strategy to get what we want.
For example, one teenager really wants to go to the mall but isn’t old enough to drive. So, he constantly nags his older brother, who can drive, to take him to the mall. He starts nagging early Saturday morning all through breakfast.
Later in the day when his brother is playing video games, he sporadically interrupts to ask again, and again. This situation becomes so annoying that, eventually, the older brother agrees to take his younger sibling to the mall, if he will “just stop pestering me.”
As soon as his brother agrees to take him to the mall, the nagging stops. The aversive stimulus has been removed and the goal behavior achieved.
Negative Reinforcement vs Punishment
Negative reinforcement is part of operant conditioning developed by psychologist B. F. Skinner in the 1960s. By controlling the consequences of an action, it is possible to shape those actions and make them more or less likely to occur.
Most people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. There are two main differences:
- First, negative reinforcement is implemented to increase the occurrence of a goal behavior, but punishment is implemented to decrease the occurrence of a target behavior.
- Secondly, negative reinforcement involves removing an unpleasant stimulus, but punishment involves applying an unpleasant stimulus.
Negative reinforcement requires the student to work for the removal of an unpleasant stimulus; to get remove something that is unpleasant.
Negative reinforcement and punishment are easily confused. They both sound aversive. However, negative reinforcement increases behavior by removing something unpleasant, while punishment decreases behavior by applying something unpleasant.
Even though there is a distinction, they can both operate simultaneously in the same situation. Learning situations are dynamic and organic, so pinning down the functioning of only one element of operant conditioning is limiting and incomplete.
Teachers often use negative reinforcement to shape their students’ behavior. By promising to eliminate an unwanted assignment or task, they encourage a specific behavior and make it more likely to occur. Not to be outdone, toddlers can shape the behavior of the adults in their lives by throwing a fit until they get their way.
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Iwata, B. (2006). On the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement. The Behavior Analyst, 29(1), 121-123. doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392123
Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.
Sugai, G., & Horner, R. (2002). The Evolution of Discipline Practices: School-Wide Positive Behavior Supports. Child and Family Behavior Therapy, 24, 23-50. Doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1300/J019v24n01_03Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]