Ready for some Pop Psych?
Let’s take a look at Reinforcement and Ghostbusters, and by Ghostbusters, I mean the 1984 film written by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis. In the start of the film we are introduced to the character Dr. Peter Venkman (played by Bill Murray) in the process of a humorous experiment with two subjects in which he says the phrase: “I’m studying the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP ability.” This is a scene shown in more than a few Psych 101 courses, where it is lambasted for scientific inaccuracy and ethical violation, but there is actually a great deal we could learn about foundational concepts from it.
In the starting scene, Dr. Venkman holds up cards to both individuals, and they are asked to guess what the symbol hidden on the other side might be. When the male subject responds incorrectly, he is given a mild electric shock, and becomes more and more irritated and averse to the experiment. The other female subject, named Jennifer, is never shown the cards true symbols. She giggles, laughs, and gives her best guess and is reported to be correct by Dr. Venkman five times in a row (even though she is not), thus avoiding the shock, and given copious attention and praise for it. The key term here we are going to look at is called Negative Reinforcement, and in the context of the electric shock, is used incorrectly. However, the audience is clearly aware of Dr. Venkman’s true aims, and deception to the subjects, which is where the humor comes in. [1,2]
So what does negative reinforcement mean? A common misconception is that “negative” means painful or averse, when in fact the term relates more to the removal of a stimulus. Let’s compare it to positive reinforcement. [1,2]
Positive Reinforcement: Adding a stimulus, which increases the probability that the behavior it follows will increase in the future. Think of this like a reward. You work a full shift, and you get a paycheck. You’re more likely to work a full shift again. [1,2]
Negative Reinforcement: This is the removal of a stimulus, which increases the probability that the behavior it follows will increase in the future. Think of this like avoidance. If you ask for no onions on your burger, and you’re given a burger without onions, you have avoided the aversive stimulus. You’re more likely to ask for no onions again. [1,2]
Both positive and negative reinforcement aim to increase the behavior that they follow. Reinforcement is an effect that strengthens behavior. Think of it this way: “Positive” means add a stimulus or stimuli. “Negative” means subtract or remove a stimulus or stimuli. [1,2]
Returning to our example, Dr. Venkman is not interested in demonstrating the effect of negative reinforcement on ESP. He is not accurately tracking any real variables associated with “ESP”, but he is using Negative Reinforcement to some degree. 
Remember Jennifer? What behavior might she be exhibiting to avoid the electric shock? Clearly, the target behavior is not guessing the symbol correctly. Instead, Jennifer is engaging socially with Dr. Venkman, she is giggling, guessing confidently, displaying attention to him, and responding eagerly to his comments and expressions. She avoids electric shock in each of those conditions, so it could be said that her attention is the true target of the experiment. Negative Reinforcement is, in a sense, in effect for the shocks for Jennifer, but so is Positive Reinforcement; her attention, giggling, and eager guesses are reinforced by Dr. Venkman’s added encouragement to continue the experiment. [1,2]
Let’s circle back to his other subject, the male who is being shocked repeatedly following incorrect guesses. Dr. Venkman gives him false encouragement by telling him “you have only 75 more to go!”, following the complaints and visible increase in irritation. Here, Dr. Venkman is using what is called Positive Punishment, which is the addition of a stimulus, the electric shock, following the incorrect guess. It could be said from this limited experiment, that using Positive Punishment was the actual independent variable controlled by Dr.Venkman, and that it’s effect was used to fluster the male subject into leaving. The subject’s attention and responses were punished, leading to a decrease in that behavior and the male subject leaving the experiment early. [1,2]
Ethically, very dubious experiment, but its comedic effects do demonstrate some actual psychological (and behavioral) phenomena.
Questions? Comments? Leave them below.
- Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (1987). Applied behavior analysis. Columbus: Merrill Pub. Co.
- Murray B., Aykroyd, D., Weaver S., Ramis H., Moranis R., Columbia Pictures Industries (Film). (1984). Ghostbusters. Burbank, CA. RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video.
Photo Credits: http://ghostbusters.wikia.com