SPED 8013 | Chapter 12: Negative Reinforcement


  • Stimulus removed (terminated, reduced, or postponed)
  • Immediately following a response
  • This results in an increase in the future frequency of similar responses under similar circumstances

Positive vs. Negative Reinforcement

How they are similar:

  • Both produce an increase in responding via a stimulus change

How they are different:

  • The type of stimulus that follows the behavior
    • Positive reinforcement produces a stimulus that was absent prior to responding
    • Negative reinforcement terminates a stimulus that was present prior to responding


  • Skinner’s pigeons (the floor is an electrical grid that delivers a mild electrical shock, however if the pigeon pecks the disk the current is shut off) This is negative reinforcement. The removal of the aversive stimulus increases the future frequency of the pecking behavior.
  • A child’s delaying tactic (a child curses mildly, crumples up their worksheet and is sent to time-out for five minutes). Although this “punishment” is meant to deter the behavior the removal (time-out) of the aversive stimulus (the worksheet) actually increases the frequency of that behavior (crumpling the worksheet).

A Difficulty…

  • Sometimes it can be difficult to determine whether the stimulus change was positive or negative
    • Turning up the heat
      • Adds heat
      • Removes cold
    • Free time contingent on work completion
      • Adds preferred activities
      • Removes work

A Solution…

  • Michael (1975) suggested the distinction is not important
  • Instead, define key stimulus features
    • Before the stimulus change
    • After the stimulus change
  • This may provide a more complete, functional understanding of the relationship between the behavior and environment
  • However, most teaching continues to emphasize the distinction between the two

Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

  • Often confused because:
    • “Positive” and “Negative” are opposites
      • But positive and negative refer to the operation,  not to the good and bad or to the up and down.
      • Both may involve aversive events
      • But in negative reinforcement, the aversive event is present prior to the target behavior and in (positive) punishment, the averse event is presented contingent on the target behavior
      • And the effect on behavior is different (negative reinforcement produces an increase in responding; punishment produces a decrease in responding)

Escape and Avoidance Contingencies

  • Escape contingency

  • Avoidance contingency

Characteristics of Negative Reinforcement

  • Any response (socially appropriate or inappropriate) can be strengthened by negative reinforcement
    • All are adaptive because they allow the individual to interact effectively with the environment
    • Some are more socially appropriate than others
  • A variety of stimuli can serve as negative reinforcers
    • Unconditioned – typically noxious events
    • Conditioned
  • Negative reinforcement can be
    • Socially mediated (delivered by another person)
      • Asking friend to turn up the heat
    • Automatic (is produced directly by the person’s response)
      • Turning up the heat yourself (or putting on a sweater)

Factors Influencing Effectiveness

  • As with positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement is most effective when
    • The stimulus change immediately follows the target response
    • The magnitude of reinforcement is large
    • It is delivered consistently
    • Reinforcement is unavailable for competing (non-target) responses

Ethical Considerations

  • Like positive reinforcement, ethical issues arise from the severity of the EO that may need to be in place to motivate the occurrence of the behavior
    • The presence of particularly aversive antecedent stimuli may be problematic
    • These stimuli may generate undesirable competing behaviors