What is Reinforcement?


Reinforcement or reward?

Have you ever heard the term reinforcement (in the context of learning or psychology) and wondered what it might mean? Reinforcement, as was originally studied, was a term that came about in behavioral psychology to describe the phenomenon of a consequence event strengthening the behavior that came before it, and increasing the probability of that behavior occurring in the same setting/situation in the future. In essence, it’s a condition that teaches a behavior to occur more often. It’s a cornerstone of learning. [1,3,4]

To help get a good handle on this, let’s break out a time-line:

Step 1 (Before Behavior):
Antecedent· Precedes the behavior.

·Can be a setting or other stimulus (interaction, etc).

Step 2: Behavior

-This is the behavior we are looking at and tracking.

·It is operant. It operates on the environment , or acts on it in some way.

Step 3  (After Behavior):  Reinforcement

· A stimulus following the behavior that is desirable to the person.

Walking into an ice cream shop.
Ordering and paying for an ice cream.
Having and eating the ice cream.

The table above demonstrates a common type of data collection on behavior (called A.B.C), and demonstrates the concept of the three-term contingency. To understand reinforcement of a behavior, you need all three pieces (before the behavior, the behavior, and what happens after). [1,4].

So what makes this different from a reward? Why is the terminology of reinforcement so important? To answer that question, we have to think ahead. A reward can be a one time event. It often follows a behavior that we want to give credit to, but only in reinforcement, are we looking for future evidence that it raises the probability of the behavior happening again. If someone does something and gets a reward, that could be all that happens. If that person continues to do that behavior in a similar setting, following that “reward”, we can call that reinforcement. Reinforcement is all about future behavior from past consequences. [1,3,4].

Looking at this from a learning theory perspective, do you think it is more beneficial to apply a rewarding stimulus before a behavior, or after? Think of this common scenario:

A child is screaming in a shopping cart. A guardian says “Sshhh!! Here, have this chocolate!”, and gives the child chocolate mid-scream. The screaming stops, at least for the duration of eating it. In this situation we see that the chocolate was given before the behavior the guardian wanted to see (quiet, not screaming). But, it was given after the screaming behavior. It is plausible that the screaming behavior will increase in the future in order to get access to chocolate. [3,4]

What about this scenario? A child is screaming in a shopping cart. A guardian says “Sshhhh! If you lower your voice you can have this chocolate.”, and the child eventually stops screaming. The guardian then provides the chocolate, which the child accepts and eats. Here, the chocolate came after the appropriate behavior was demonstrated. It is plausible that the longer duration of quiet, or the act of quieting following the request from the guardian would increase in the future.  [3,4]

Can you spot the difference and importance of when and how reinforcement is used?


Types of Reinforcement

There are as many types of reinforcers as there are stimuli in the environment that people enjoy or desire. These stimuli are practically endless in number, and vary from person to person. There are certain things that naturally reinforcing biologically, these are called Primary Reinforcers. They include food, drink, stimulatory pleasure. Then, there are Secondary Reinforcers. These are reinforcers that are conditioned or learned. They include things like money, reading, music. [1,2,4].

Primary Reinforcer Examples: Food, air,  water, warmth, physical contact.
Secondary Reinforcer Examples:  Money, verbal praise (“Good job!”), high scores or grades, trophies.

That’s not all. There are even variations of Reinforcement itself. If reinforcers are the stimuli, then reinforcement is the method by which they are applied. These come in two forms: Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement.  When we use these terms, keep in mind that they are not a subjective judgement of “good” or “bad”.  Positive Reinforcement is the addition of a stimulus that would increase future probability of behavior. This could be any of the examples listed above in terms of Primary or Secondary reinforcers. Negative Reinforcement is slightly different. It is the removal of aversive stimuli which increases the probability of future behavior. Both positive and negative reinforcement increase behavior in the future. [1,3,4]

Positive Reinforcement Example: A person says hello, and they are greeted with a smile and handshake.

  • The smile and handshake are added, and will influence future levels of saying “hello”.
Negative Reinforcement Example: A person says “Can you turn that down?”, and the other person turns down their loud stereo.

  • The volume level of the loud stereo is removed, and will influence future levels of requesting to “turn it down”.


Let’s touch back on our original example. There are sometimes situations that give out false positives of reinforcement, or incorrectly strengthen behaviors we do not mean to increase. Think about the first example of the child in the shopping cart:

  • A child is screaming in a shopping cart. A guardian says “Sshhh!! Here, have this chocolate!”, and gives the child chocolate mid-scream. The screaming stops, at least for the duration of eating it.

The screaming stops, doesn’t it? The request for Ssshh!! was obeyed, wasn’t it? Not exactly. There was no time for the child themselves to show any operant behavior towards that request. The chocolate was provided following the screaming, and in fact interrupted it. This is closer to bribery than it is reinforcement, but since for the sake of this situation chocolate is a desirable stimulus, it can still have a reinforcing effect on the behavior that preceded it: the screaming. It is not the request the child learns to follow, it is the continuous screaming that achieved a more desirable condition. [3]

In that moment, both scenarios did achieve limited quietness, but over the longer scope of future trips in a shopping cart, the condition where the screaming was interrupted by chocolate lends itself to higher future rates of it reoccurring. [1,2,3,4].

Reinforcement can be accidental, and the learner can even be totally unaware of it happening. It does not require conscious effort, awareness, or focus in order for this type of learning to occur, either. In each case, behaviors are strengthened by the placement in time of the reinforcer (and its effectiveness/desirability as a reinforcer). Too soon, and you may strengthen an unintended behavior. Too late, and you may miss the chance for that reinforcer to have an effect. [2,3,4].

Questions? Comments? Write them below!




1] Skinner, B. F. About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf; 1974.

2] Ferster, C.B., & Skinner, B.F. Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1957.

3] Mowrer, O. H. (1960). Learning theory and behavior. New York: Wiley.

4] Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.

Photo Credits: http://www.unsplash.com

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