Positive reinforcement is a powerful way to encourage repetition of desirable behaviors. It’s used with dogs, children and even adults. And I’ll provide examples for each below.
Some of my favorite positive reinforcement examples are:
- Verbal Praise
- Extra Power
- A Gift
- Public Recognition
- Social Status
Below I explain each of these, their pros and cons, and when it’s best (and worst!) to use them.
Positive Reinforcement Examples
1. Verbal Praise
Explanation: Verbal praise can be anything from a happy and upbeat “Good job!” through to a public acknowledgement of someone’s good work. We do this in just about any situation – from dog training to schools to the workplace.
Pros: Very fast and simple. Works in any situation.
Cons: Can be overused. Can come across as condescending.
Best For: Dogs, Teachers, Parents, Workplace
2. Food (Candy)
Explanation: We even do this for ourselves: “If I write 200 more words on this article, I can give myself a gummi bear.” It works well with children, of course, as well as dogs in the form of treats. In fact, it’s probably the most widely used incentive for training dogs. In the workplace, you could provide pizza in the staff room on a Friday if everyone meets their quotas.
Pros: Powerful incentive. Works in any situation.
Cons: Parents may not like it. Children have allergies. Can cause obesity with overuse. Sugar can lead to hyperactive behavior.
Best For: Dogs (treats), Parents, Workplace
Explanation: Money is perhaps one of the biggest incentives of all. It can be traded in for any number of things, including most of the other physical incentives (like food) in this list.
In fact, money is the positive reinforcement we all get for waking up and going to work each day!
For kids, this might be a few dollars a week in pocket money. In the workplace, it could be a bonus or even stock option at the end of a good year.
Pros: Powerful incentive for adults and children alike.
Cons: Can become expensive! Not possible for pets, of course.
Best For: Kids in small amounts (pocket money). An incentive bonus in the workplace.
4. Free Time
Explanation: This can be for children or adults. I would often use this as a teacher: “finish all the tasks and we’ll have a free afternoon on Friday for you to play games.”
In the workforce, you could set up an incentive structure around completing projects in order to get extra days of paid leave. Or, simply, you could hire people per job rather than per hour so that once they’ve finished the job they will have all the free time in the world.
Pros: Works well for people who value family and recreation.
Cons: Not usable for animal training.
Best For: Classroom situations.
5. Choose your Own Activity
Explanation: Another one popular for school teachers, this positive reinforcement involves allowing students to choose a follow-up activity if they do well in their current activity. For example, you could tell the students that the winner of a quiz can choose the next activity for the whole class (and give them three or four activities to choose from).
Pros: Comes associated with power if you can choose the activity for both yourself and your classmates.
Cons: Doesn’t work for animals. Less common in the workforce, also.
Best For: Classroom activities, parenting.
Explanation: An applause at the end of a performance is one of the most common forms of positive reinforcement in the world. Sometimes it’s just polite, but if you get a standing ovation or a vigorous applause, you know you’ve done a great job.
Pros: Instant feedback.
Cons: No substantive (physical, monetary) reward beyond the moment which may diminish its power for some people.
Best For: Children and adults alike.
7. Public Recognition
Explanation: Public recognition could be a boss standing up in a meeting and pointing someone out for a good job they did. Or, it could be a teacher being so impressed by a student’s artwork that it goes in the class newsletter that week.
Pros: Provides social status to the receiver. It’s free.
Cons: This can be very fake if not done right – e.g. when there’s an ‘employee of the month’ each month and everyone knows they just rotate through a list.
Best For: Workplace and School situations.
8. Subtle Displays of Approval
Explanation: A display of approval might be a subtle laughter at a well-placed joke or a wink to a kid who did a good job.
A good example of this is when someone eats a meal you cooked for them, and you’re eating it quickly (while maybe also making noises of approval while you eat!), which shows the chef that you genuinely liked what they made for you.
Pros: Often comes across as very genuine.
Cons: Only works if the person you’re trying to reward cares about impressing you.
Best For: Can be used in most situations.
Explanation: Many people are very motivated by power. If you’re a boss or teacher, you can give out power to people who you want to reward. In the classroom, this might be allowing a child to choose who is on their ‘team’ for the next activity. At work, this might be a promotion!
Pros: Works for most people. Often doesn’t cost you anything.
Cons: Be careful about creating a competitive atmosphere where people are fighting for power.
Best For: Workplace, Classroom.
Explanation: A handshake is a form of positive reinforcement we use regularly, but we’re not aware of it. A handshake takes place after a competitive sporting event to congratulate the winner, for example.
In some cultures (and situations), this could also take the form of a hug. For example, if you want to thank a family member for doing something for you (a form of positive reinforcement), you might hug them.
Pros: It’s free!
Cons: Different cultures will have different conventions about when this is appropriate and what it means.
Best For: Adults
11. A Smile
Explanation: When I was younger, there was no better positive reinforcement than a girl giving me a smile after I made an effort to impress her! And this goes for any situation. A teacher smiling as she reads your work or a boss giving you a smile when you hand in your report are both great examples.
Body language like smiles and winks are excellent cues to people to understand your response – positive or negative (both key reinforcers).
This one overlaps with ‘subtle displays of approval’ discussed earlier.
Pros: Free! Builds rapport.
Cons: Might not work for animals.
Best For: Most situations.
12. Star Chart
Explanation: Start charts are extremely common with younger children. You can use them for potty training, encouraging house work, or even rewards for completing homework at school. Add extra rewards after each 10 starts to further encourage effort.
Pros: Very useful for younger children.
Cons: Not useful at all for adults.
Best For: Ages 3 – 7
13. Time Off
Explanation: Earlier, I mentioned ‘free time’. Free time is common in classrooms, where children stay at school but get to do what they choose. ‘Time off’ might be better for adults, where they can get extra days or even weeks off from work if they meet certain deadlines.
Pros: A strong incentive for adults.
Cons: Could be expensive or not feasible for employers.
Best For: Adults in the workplace.
14. One-on-One Time
Explanation: If access to you is desired, then you can provide it as a positive reinforcement. A good example of this is with a coach, who might tell people in the team that if they do 100 push-ups a day for a month, then they will get a one-to-one coaching session.
In a classroom, students also often seek one-to-one coaching, especially in the lead-up to exams.
Pros: Strong added incentive for people already motivated.
Cons: Costs you a lot of your own time.
Best For: Coaches
15. Extra Time
Explanation: Some tasks are in fact enjoyable, and students might want extra time on them. You can provide that extra time as a positive reinforcement for good work during the task.
This is in fact something doner regularly in gamification. Play a video game and you’ll see time gets added to your gameplay in return for completing a section of the game quickly or beating a difficult opponent.
Pros: Good for extending enjoyable activities.
Cons: Doesn’t work in tasks that require extrinsic motivation.
Best For: Gamification.
16. A Ticket to a Game, Show or Theme Park
Explanation: When I went to school, every student who took an optional standardized math test got a trip to the local theme park. I did it every year because I wanted to jump on the rollercoaster!
This can also be quite common in the workforce, where people are incentivized with vouchers to spa days or the theatre.
Cons: Could be expensive.
Best For: Children and adults.
17. Rest or Sleep
Explanation: In adulthood, I came to learn that sleep is a precious commodity. As a parent, you could reward your partner for their great work by saying: “let me look after the kids for a few hours so you can get some rest.”
Pros: Very desirable for parents!
Cons: Children usually don’t respond well to this.
Best For: Parents
18. A Present (e.g. Toy)
Explanation: Gifts can take many forms. But one of the most common ones is to buy a toy for a child for doing something well. For example, if a child behaves themselves while shopping, you could say that you will let them choose a toy at the checkout to add to the cart.
Pros: Gives a lot of freedom of choice – you can choose your toy!
Cons: Adults who have disposable income might not care for this method.
Best For: Everyone – could even work with dogs.
19. Less Work
Explanation: You could offer someone positive reinforcement by telling them they can do less work if they complete the work they’ve got to do well. For example, if someone is making a coffee table, you could say to them: “If you do a great job with the carpentry, I’ll do the painting for you.”
Similarly, there’s a positive reinforcement in passing an exam, because it means you don’t have to re-sit the exam over and again until you pass.
Pros: Strong incentive to do well.
Cons: Not feasible for pets.
Best For: Workplace and school.
20. Social Status
Explanation: Social status could be anything from a special title (“class captain”) to a promotion (from being “junior” to “senior” team member). It works for people who seek the approval of their colleagues and family, or who are motivated by a sense of power.
Pros: Works well for people actively seeking approval.
Cons: Creates social hierarchies. Ineffective with anti-authoritarian minded people.
Best For: Humans only! Sorry doggies.
21. A Trophy or Award
Explanation: Trophies and awards are common both in schools and the sporting world. A gold-silver-bronze system is easy to set up, and anyone with a printer and laminator can put together customized awards.
Pros: Rewards winners in a competitive situation.
Cons: Can be overused (‘participation trophies’). Adults in the workplace might find it patronizing. Doesn’t work with pets.
Best For: Children
What is the Theory of Positive Reinforcement?
Positive reinforcement is part of the behaviorism theory. This theory says that people (and animals) will be more likely to repeat behaviors that they know will lead to rewards and decrease behaviors that will lead to negative consequences.
It’s a theory promoted by famous theorists including Skinner, Thorndike and Watson. Perhaps most famously, Skinner used the theory with children to train them into (and out of) certain behaviors. He even used it to help children lose their fears of certain animals.
But we also know that positive and negative reinforcement can lose its strength over time. We call this ‘desensitization’. We’ve learned that the best way to prevent ‘desensitization’ to reinforcers is to provide them only in random intervals after the positive behavior has been learned.
To go into more depth on the theory behind positive reinforcement, read my article on behaviorism.
See Also: The Banking Model of Education
Many people consider positive reinforcement to be a negative thing because it encourages extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivation. In other words, people do things only for the reward they get at the end, rather than due to pure interest in the action or belief in it as an inherently ‘good thing’ to do.
That’s why many people prefer other incentive systems, like those promoted by the humanist theory and sociocultural theory, which both provide more intrinsic forms of motivation for positive behaviors.
Other Motivation Models
Some other motivation models that you could read up about include:
Positive reinforcement remains one of the most useful ways to encourage good behavior and decrease negative behavior. Whether you’re training a dog, a child, or an employee, we see rewards all around us.
While it has its criticisms (namely, that it’s an extrinsic rather than intrinsic reward model), it remains an important skill for a teacher, trainer, coach or manager to have. Mixed in with a range of other methods of encouraging motivation, positive reinforcement can be helpful to both the teacher and the learner.