Positive consequences are the rewarding results of a behavior deemed desirable.
When an individual’s behavior is followed by a positive consequence, then the person is more likely to exhibit that behavior again.
Of course, this is the opposite of negative consequences, in which the result of a specific behavior is unpleasant or aversive. Behavior that is followed by negative consequences are less likely to occur again.
Examples of positive consequences include a high-five from a teacher, a performance-based bonus, and a gold star for doing well on a test.
Positive Consequences Definition
One of the first psychologists to discuss how positive and negative consequences impact behavior was Edward Thorndike.
Thorndike stated that:
“Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation” (Gray, 2007, p. 106).
This is referred to as Thorndike’s Law of Effect (1898;1905).
Positive consequences are also discussed sometimes in the context of unexpected positive outcomes related to negative situations.
For instance, there can be positive consequences to interpersonal conflict, competition, and aversive life events such as being diagnosed with a severe illness.
Similarly, in psychology, positive consequences are central to the operant conditioning concept in behaviorism, where it is believed associating a positive consequence with a behavior, the behavior will more likely be repeated.
Type of Consequences
Consequences, both positive and negative, come in many forms.
1. Natural Consequences
These are consequences that occur without any intervention by an authority figure such as a parent or teacher. For example, doing well on an exam is a natural consequence of studying. An example of natural consequences is falling and becoming injured when you lean back in your chair.
2. Logical Consequences
These are consequences that are directly tied to behavior. They are defined by an individual, usually in a position of authority. The rules of the consequence are reasonable, respectful, and related to the individual’s actions. An example of a logical consequence is when a parent makes a child fix something if they broke it.
3. Symbolic Consequences
These are stimuli that have no inherent meaning, but are used to reward behavior. They have symbolic meaning. Gold stars are often used by teachers to reward students. Plastic chips can be used as tokens in a psychiatric hospital for good behavior and exchanged later for desired objects or privileges. They can also be taken away for misbehavior.
4. Social Consequences
These are consequences that are delivered directly by others. Teachers, parents, and supervisors deliver positive social consequences in the form of verbal praise. Being scolded for bad behavior is an example of a negative social consequence.
5. Tangible Consequences
These are desirable objects that are used to reward specific behaviors, For example, a teacher may give a child a treat or toy when the child is well-behaved or does what is asked. Employers give employees a salary for doing their job. Or, employees can be fined for breaking company rules.
6. Activity Related Consequences
Teachers often apply consequences that are connected to activities, such as time allotted to playing on the playground or free-time in the classroom. These can be positive or negative, such as allowing more time for play or taking free-play time away until students have completed their assignment or cleaned-up the classroom.
See Also: Classroom Consequences Examples
Positive Consequences vs. Positive Discipline
While positive consequences refer to rewarding specific behaviors, positive discipline is a much broader philosophical orientation on how to raise children (Nelsen, 1996; 2011). It is practiced by both parents and teachers.
Positive discipline incorporates delivering positive consequences to reward desirable behavior, but also adds several other elements as part of a child-rearing or overall classroom management strategy.
That strategy can involve applying negative consequences when a child has misbehaved.
The goal of positive discipline is to help children develop and reach their unique potential by creating a caring and respectful environment.
Parents and teachers that practice positive discipline clearly communicate what are desired and undesired behaviors, and what the positive and negative consequences are for each.
But these rules and contingencies are explained using a respectful and considerate tone. That is a core component of positive discipline.
By letting children know they are valued and respected, especially when disciplined, they will understand that when negative consequences are applied, it is done so because the goal is to help the child, not just punish them.
Positive Consequences Examples
- Performance-Based Bonus: Many companies implement performance-based pay structures or bonus systems. Employees are given a bonus in pay for reaching a specific milestone in their performance, such as signing a certain number of new clients ─ Tangible Consequence
- Chips for Cleaning-Up: Patients in a psychiatric hospital are given shiny plastic chips for cleaning their rooms and their tables after each meal. At the end of each week, the chips can be exchanged for snacks and beverages ─ Symbolic Consequence
- Teacher Giving High-Fives: When preschool students raise their hands to answer a question, the teacher gives them a high-five, even if the answer was wrong, to encourage participation. ─ Social Consequence
- Sharing Candy in Class: When a student brings candy to school, the teacher calmly explains that she will get to share with her classmates after school because no candy is allowed in the classroom ─ Logical Consequence
- Listening to Instructions: Some students are very attentive to the teacher’s instructions. As a result, their homework is done properly and they earn good grades on assignments ─ Natural Consequence
- Going Swimming: One family has a rule for their kids: if they do their chores during the week, then they can go swimming on the weekend ─ Activity Related Consequence
- Extra Budget for PD: A school system has implemented a classroom incentive program across the district. Schools in which the students’ scores on the yearly achievement tests surpass a certain threshold are rewarded with extra funds for professional development ─ Tangible Consequence
- Preparing Great Lessons: When a teacher consistently provides their students with engaging and effective lessons, they are rewarded at the end of the year with great student evaluations ─ Natural Consequence
- Praise at a Team Meeting: At the end of each week, the coaching staff praise certain players for extra hard effort during practice and making significant progress on specific training goals ─ Social Consequence
- Gold Stars for Spelling: The teacher puts a gold star next to each word a child spells correctly on their spelling test ─ Symbolic Consequence
Applications of Positive Consequences
1. In Token Economies
A token economy is a system of rewards and punishments. It is a behavior modification technique used in psychiatric hospitals, correctional facilities, treatment programs, and classrooms.
Tokens, in the form of plastic chips or similar objects, are given as rewards for desirable behavior, or taken away as a negative consequence of undesirable behavior.
LePage et al. (2003) implemented a token economy for inpatients in a psychiatric unit. When patients exhibited desirable behavior, such as taking their medication or showering, they were given stamps. However, stamps were taken away if they engaged in undesirable behavior such as hitting others or destroying property.
The results of a 2-year follow-up showed a 48% decrease in patient/patient injury and a 21% decrease in patient/employee injury.
In a literature review of research on token economies, Maggin et al. (2003) concluded that token economies did not reach a high standard of effectiveness. Even though the research was encouraging, the results did not meet the criteria for “evidence-based” standards.
Many token economies are implemented in groups, but Soares et al. (2016) conducted a meta-analysis of token economies involving single-case applications.
The results indicated that token economies were more effective for students 6-15 years old than for students ages 3-5.
Reitman et al. (2021) noted several difficulties in implementing an effective token economy. It is important to have a high degree of organizational commitment, the contingency between behavior and rewards/punishments must be clearly communicated, and staff must be well-trained and supervised regularly.
2. In Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)
Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a behavior modification strategy that increases desirable behavior and decreases undesirable behavior (Madden, 2012).
ABA relies heavily on applying positive consequences to desirable behavior, and often ignores undesirable behavior. For some children, even being scolded is rewarding because they like the attention.
ABA is most often implemented with students that are suffering from a learning disability, but can also be applied to children with more typical learner profiles.
For example, Riley et al. (2011) instructed a teacher to provide praise for on-task behavior and redirect off-task behavior for two elementary students with typical learner profiles, but some trouble staying on-task.
The results indicated that this strategy was effective in “…increasing the on-task behaviors of both student participants” (p. 159).
Eldevik et al. (2010) reviewed the scientific studies on early intensive behavioral interventions (EIBI) and concluded:
“Recent narrative and meta-analytic reviews suggest that EIBI may meet criteria as a “well-established” intervention…effect sizes for Intelligence quotient (IQ) and adaptive behavior outcomes are in the medium to large range” (p. 17).
Warren et al. (2011) also conducted a comprehensive review of ABA research and other strategies and concluded that these interventions improve cognitive performance, language skills, and adaptive behavior.
However, the results were slightly more nuanced. The authors suggested that the strength of the evidence was low. Furthermore, studies that found supporting evidence might be due to the intervention only working with a subset of the children in the study.
Solomon (2008) points out that ABA is criticized by some members of the autistic community on philosophical grounds. Instead of accepting their uniqueness and true personalities, ABA is trying to “normalize” autistic individuals and force them to conform to intolerant societal standards.
Positive consequences are rewards for behavior that is desirable or based on socially acceptable standards. Behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to occur again.
Teachers and parents can apply positive consequences to shape children’s behavior over time.
There are many forms of positive consequences. Some consequences are natural and will occur without the intervention of an authority figure.
Other forms of positive consequences can involve encouraging good behavior with verbal praise, tangible rewards such as toys, symbolic rewards such as tokens or gold stars, or providing greater access to activity-related privileges such as increased play time or weekend recreation.
Administering positive consequences is at the heart of interventions designed to shape behavior over time, such as in token economies or ABA.
Research shows that, generally speaking, these interventions are effective in increasing desired behavior and decreasing undesired behavior.
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