An Introduction to Reinforcement

by Jaime Klinefelter

Reinforcement is commonly thought of as an item, like chocolate. “Chocolate is a reinforcer.” This is an inaccurate statement because not everyone likes chocolate. Reinforcement is something that will increase the likelihood of behavior occurring again in the future. It is more of a process. For example, if you clap and I give you a twenty, you are more likely to clap again to get more twenties. There are 2 types of reinforcement, positive and negative. Positive reinforcement increases behavior by adding something. An example would be Johnny screams and his mom comes over and asks if he is ok. In the future, Johnny screams more often to get his mom’s attention. The attention was the reinforcer and it was added after the screaming occurred. We can only call this reinforcement IF future behavior (screaming) increases. Negative reinforcement increases behavior by taking something away. An example would be Tina hits her brother and he runs away. In the future Tina hits her brother when she wants him to go away. Getting her brother to leave was the reinforcer. The situation was aversive because Tina did not want her brother to bother her, so she hit him and that caused him to go away. Therefore, in the future, if her brother is bothering her, she will likely hit him to get him to go away.

Try these examples to see if you can determine which type of reinforcement it is.

Luke raises his hand in class and the teacher calls on him to come to the board. In the future, Luke raises his hand more often to get the teacher to call on him. If you said this was positive reinforcement you would be correct! The teacher calling on him is the reinforcement and the behavior is Luke raising his hand. We can say it is reinforcement because the behavior increased. It is positive because the teacher’s attention was added. Great Job, try another one!

Brandy is asked to get in the car to go to the grocery store. Brandy falls to the floor crying and her mom says, “OK I will go by myself and you can stay with Dad.” Brandy always falls to the floor and cries when she is asked to get in the car. Is it reinforcement? What type? Negative Reinforcement is correct. The worsening condition was going to the grocery store, the behavior was falling on the floor crying and the reinforcement was getting to stay home. We can say it is reinforcement because the scenario says the behavior increased. It is negative because the demand of getting in the car was removed. Let’s try a harder one!

Alex does the dishes and his mom gives him Brussel Sprouts. Would this be reinforcement? We would need some more information to determine if this is reinforcement. You may read it and say it is definitely not reinforcement because I hate Brussel sprouts! However, Alex may LOVE Brussel sprouts! Just because we don’t like something, doesn’t mean someone else won’t. However, to know if it is reinforcement we need to know what happens in the future. Does Alex do the dishes more often or does he never do them again? If Alex washes dishes more in the future it would be positive reinforcement because the Brussel sprouts were added. Awesome Job; that was a tricky one!

Nick raises his hand to answer a question in class and the teacher has him stand up and answer in to front of the class. Nick never raises his hand again because he does not want to stand in front of the class. Is this reinforcement? You’re right! This is not reinforcement because it does not increase the behavior. It is actually called punishment because it decreases Nick’s behavior of raising his hand.
Christy walks over to her grandma and gives her a hug. Her grandma gives her a cookie and hugs her back. In the future, Christy gives her grandma hugs whenever she is around. This is positive reinforcement! The behavior is a hug and the reinforcer is the cookie. We know the cookie is a reinforcer because the hugs increased. If her grandma had given her chocolate (which Christy hates) Christy may not have hugged her grandma when she saw her.

It is really important to look at what happens to behavior in the future as this is the true indicator as to whether the item can be considered reinforcement.

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