Defining behavioral science: Negative Reinforcement

What is negative reinforcement?

As a refresher, reinforcement is something you get after something that you do that makes it so you want to do that again. Reinforcement increases behavior. It makes it stronger. Reinforcement is the powerhouse of behavior change.

Pretty easy, but then, behavioral science makes it hard by adding words like ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ and everything gets complicated.

Usually, positive means good and negative means bad, right? That’s not the case when we talk about things behaviorally.

Let’s see how Bill Murray explains it.

I don’t want to bury the lede, so I’m going to tell you that Bill Murray gets negative reinforcement wrong, but why wouldn’t he? It’s completely confusing.

You keep using that word: Negative reinforcement

Let’s make it simple: positive is when you add something and negative is when you take something away. Positive reinforcement is when you give something and it makes the behavior happen again. Negative reinforcement is when you take something away and it makes the behavior happen again.

Some examples of positive reinforcement: giving a child a sticker on a chart when they go potty so they will keep it up, or giving them a high five when they finish a hard math problem so they will do the next one. Positive reinforcement is easy to understand. Give something, get better behavior.

Some examples of negative reinforcement: when your child turns in their homework so they don’t have to hear their teacher lecture them, or when you turn off your alarm so it will stop beeping and let you get more sleep. Negative reinforcement is harder.

Let’s see if Bill Murray can redeem himself:

Yes! Bill got it right! Getting rid of the annoying alarm increases his behavior of pushing the button—or breaking the alarm.

So, why does this matter since there isn’t going to be a test and having a philosophical conversation about the nuance of behavioral science isn’t super helpful when your kid is losing their mind about putting their shoes on the right feet?

The takeaway is understanding that sometimes, taking stuff away makes behavior increase.

Taking away your kid’s plate when they throw a fit about finishing their peas might make their fit happen again in the future. Sending your kid to their room when it’s time to clean up because they stalled like the 2020 election to get out of it might be just the thing to make them stall again and again. These are not the desired results.

To take control, it’s important to understand that sometimes, taking stuff away can make behavior increase. You have to decide if that benefits you or if it doesn’t. That’s the power of understanding reinforcement, both positive and negative.


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