Understanding the difference between negative reinforcement vs punishment can be confusing. Do you know the difference? These are some of those terms that people mix up all the time. It’s definitely a pet peeve of mine. People avoid using terms like negative reinforcement and punishment because they associate them with something bad happening. But today, we’re going to talk a little bit more about what those terms really mean and how they should be used.
Anything that’s called reinforcement simply means that the behavior is more likely to increase in the future. So if you think about it, reinforcement means increase. Now, when you put a word in front of reinforcement, positive or negative, it doesn’t mean anything good or bad really happens. All that means is that we are increasing the future likelihood of behavior by either adding something or by taking something away.
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What is Negative Reinforcement?
Let’s look at negative reinforcement as an example – the reinforcement piece means that we are increasing the future likelihood of behavior. The negative part means we do that by taking something away.
I was always taught that negative reinforcement is synonymous with relief. When you wake up in the morning, your alarm clock beeps and beeps, and beeps and beeps, so you shut that alarm clock off. Your behavior of shutting the alarm clock off was negatively reinforced. The next time that the alarm beeps, you’re going to be likely to do the same behavior, shut off the alarm clock, because that behavior gave you relief. By pushing the snooze button or turning that alarm clock off, you got rid of a very aversive stimulus. In regular language that just means that something bad was taken away and the behavior is more likely to happen again in the future.
Another example is when you have a headache, you take Advil and that headache goes away. Your behavior of taking Advil was negatively reinforced. By taking Advil, your headache was removed. And that means next time you have a headache, you’re going to be more likely to take that Advil again in the future. So your behavior of taking that Advil is going to happen more likely in the future. That’s the reinforcement piece. And the negative piece means that something aversive was taken away. Your headache was taken away, the noise was taken away. That’s all it really means – behavior increases by taking away something aversive.
How is Negative Reinforcement Different From Punishment?
Now, let’s get to punishment. People hear punishment and they think that it means something bad has to happen. In reality, in technical terms, it just means that behavior decreases. So something can only be defined as punishment if it changes the future likelihood of behavior. And that change is a decrease. Now, if you think about it, a lot of our behaviors, and a lot of the way we live, is maintained by punishment. The reason that we don’t touch a hot stove is because of that one time we touched it and we got burned. We’re very likely to remember that and so that’s going to control our behavior.
We don’t want bad things to happen. And that keeps us safe. It keeps us keeping the laws, keeping rules, and not engaging in things that end up being really dangerous for us. Now, the same way that reinforcement can be positive or negative, meaning the addition or subtraction of something, punishment can also be positive or negative. So you can either decrease behavior by adding something or you can decrease behavior by taking something away.
Negative Punishment vs Positive Punishment
So let’s talk about positive punishment. In my example with the stove, if you touch the stove, and you get a burn, you’re less likely to touch the stove again in the future. The pain was added and the likelihood of your doing it again is low.
Now negative punishment means that something is removed. And that’s more likely to decrease your behavior in the future. So for example, if you know you are late for a game that you’re supposed to play in, the negative punishment is that you’re not able to play. You’re less likely to come late again in the future. When we hear punishment, we think about timeout or missing recess. But punishment really just means that you’re decreasing the future likelihood of behavior. And in reality, sometimes we need that in our lives because it keeps us safe.
So to summarize, we talked about the difference between negative reinforcement vs punishment. Also how both can be used effectively and what they really mean in our real life.
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