What’s The Difference Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is used to help increase the probability that a specific behavior will occur with the delivery of a stimulus/item immediately after a response/behavior is exhibited. The use of these procedures has been used with both typical and atypical developing children, teenagers, elderly persons, animals, and different psychological disorders. 

There are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the two.

Positive Reinforcement:

This is a very powerful and effective tool to help shape and change behavior. It works by presenting a motivating item to the person after the desired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future.

The following are some examples of positive reinforcement:

• A mother gives her son candy for cleaning up his toys.

• A little girl receives $5.00 for doing chores.

Negative Reinforcement:

This is when a certain stimulus/item is removed after a particular behavior is exhibited. The likelihood of the particular behavior occurring again in the future is increased because of removing/avoiding the negative stimuli.

It should not be thought of as a punishment procedure. With negative reinforcement, you are increasing a behavior, whereas with punishment, you are decreasing a behavior.

The following are some examples of negative reinforcement:

• Billy hates when his mom nags him to do the dishes. He starts to do the dishes immediately after finishing a meal to avoid his mother’s nagging.

• Lisa always complains of a headache when it is time to start doing her homework. Her parents allow her to go to bed without doing her homework.

Always remember that the end result is to try to increase the behavior, whereas punishment procedures are used to decrease behavior. For positive reinforcement, try to think of it as adding something positive in order to increase a response. For negative reinforcement, try to think of it as taking something negative away in order to increase a response.

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39 replies
  1. Marissa Edwards
    Marissa Edwards says:

    Katie, you explained this very clearly, deciphering the differences between reinforcements is challenging. Is there any way to know when to use a positive reinforcement versus a negative reinforcement, or when one will work better than the other?

  2. Katie Sadowski
    Katie Sadowski says:

    Thank you, Stephanie & Marissa!

    Marissa, to answer your question about when it would be better to use positive or negative reinforcement all depends on if you are adding a stimulus or taking one away. If a stimulus is being added after a behavior is exhibited then you will always use positive reinforcement. Whereas for negative reinforcement, a stimulus is being removed after the behavior is exhibited. Please, let me know if this makes sense or if you have further questions. Thank you!

  3. Kristin Smith
    Kristin Smith says:

    I agree that negative reinforcement and punishment are easily confused. Thanks for clearly illustrating the difference.

  4. Claude Czekaj
    Claude Czekaj says:

    Very good article! It was clearly written and will help individuals understand the differences between the two reinforcement classifications.

  5. Maneckji Appoo
    Maneckji Appoo says:

    Heyy..thank you for this concrete and concise description; really helped in revising the concept; always has been slightly confusing..but we do know the that the importance of this can, in no way be overemphasized, especially with children. Just one thing I wanted to clarify; the point about negative reinforcement where you have mentioned that it entails the removal of a ‘negative’ stimulus. Here I’m still not very clear about how the removal of something ‘negative’ will increase a desired behaviour. Please correct me if I’mm mistaken: the removal of something negative will be on the grounds that first we are developing some negative value for the person?
    As in the example of Lisa, the act of going to bed, as I can imagine has been given some (associated) some negative value with it. correct or not, please guide.
    Thanking you in anticipation.


  6. Katie Sadowski
    Katie Sadowski says:

    Dear Maneckji Appoo,

    I am sorry for my delayed response.  I hope the following can help clarify a little more, if you have not gotten clarification yet.

    The negative stimulus for Lisa is doing her homework, not going to bed.  So whenever she has homework she will complain of a headache.  Her parents allow her to go to bed and not do her homework. In the end, Lisa is able to avoid/remove the negative stimulus (homework).  In the future, she will be more likely to say she has a headache when it comes time to do homework so that she does not have to do it. 

    I hope this helps! If not, please let me know and I can try to present it another way.  

    Thank you,

      • North Shore Pediatric Therapy
        North Shore Pediatric Therapy says:

        Hi Imran,

        respond differently to reinforcement. Some people find positive
        reinforcement more rewarding/motivating, while others seem to respond
        better to
        negative reinforcement. However, combining both positive and negative
        reinforcement together can be very beneficial and effective. You need
        to remember that reinforcement should be used when you want to increase a
        desired behavior. Positive reinforcement
        should be used when you are adding a desired item/stimulus after the
        behavior occurs, whereas, negative reinforcement should be used when an
        undesired stimulus is being removed after the behavior is exhibited.


  7. Phillips881
    Phillips881 says:

    After reading the examples, I have a clear understanding of the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment.

  8. Katie Sadowski
    Katie Sadowski says:

    Thank you for taking the time to read my article! I am glad my examples were helpful and that you found this article to be useful!

  9. Katie Sadowski
    Katie Sadowski says:

    Thank you for taking the time to read my article! I am glad my examples were helpful and that you found this article to be useful!

  10. Kenneth Borg
    Kenneth Borg says:

    Dear Ms Sadowski, I would like to ask why reinforcement does not work with some children manifesting disruptive and aggressive behaviour?

    • Chili9573
      Chili9573 says:

      Although many people like to ignore the issue and believe that positive and negative reinforcement and/or punishment will work with all children, some children have problems that need medical treatment. I say this because I have a son who has been diagnosed with ADHD. It is a proven chemical imbalance that results in inability to pay attention, hyper-activity, aggression and impulsiveness. My son was in constant trouble on a daily basis when he began school, but once I took him to the doctor and he began taking medicine, he has become almost a different child. He no longer gets in trouble (except for on occasion as with most children) and he is able to stay focused on his school work. Many people say that children become “zombies” when they are on this medication, and for those who have children like this, the solution is simple. The dosage for their medication is to high. My son goes to the doctor every three months for a checkup since he has been on this medication, and the only thing I can say is that it has made a huge difference in his life, my life and the people around him.

      • Teresa
        Teresa says:

        I am a behavior analyst. I do believe we can change a lot! But I also understand that medical issues may need medical treatments. I have annoyed families with how quickly I refer them to their other providers (doctor, neurologist, SLP). I also have ADHD and all the behavior strategies I have in my tool box don’t compare to my medication. The medication helps me use the behavior strategies. I was not diagnosed and medicated until I was in college. My mom didn’t want me to be a zombie. Now, I could not imagine my life without it. I went from a struggling college student to a grad student getting As.

  11. Erstdfyugihjok_m
    Erstdfyugihjok_m says:

    thankyou sooo much, now I have an better understanding on reinforcement, other websites dont have good definitons or examples unlike yours

  12. Kinarerei Ruatunneita
    Kinarerei Ruatunneita says:

    Vinaka (Thank you) Katie Sadowski, it really help me to complete my education project

    I suggest that when teachers enter the classroom stituation, they should always used positive reinforcement and stop punishing the student.

    Again, Vinaka waka levu (thank you so much)

  13. Margaret Waggoner
    Margaret Waggoner says:

    negative reinforcement appears to be the same thing as punishment, although the wording is changed up. I kind of like saying it this way though because (a) it sounds smarter XD and (b) it shows what the desired result of the “punishment” actually is.

    A lot of people forget that the end result of punishment is not to find personal enjoyment in the suffering of our mini me’s. It’s something that we do out of love to help our children make better choices in the future.

    Thanks Katie for the easy to read article! 🙂

    • Teresa
      Teresa says:

      In punishment you are decreasing a behavior. You are not teaching the person anything. That is a big difference. If you successfully diminish a behavior without teaching a replacement skill, then the person will find one on their own. It can be much worse than the 1st behavior you were trying to diminish. Punishment also does not get at some fundamental issues. Many times the person has skill deficits that need to be targeted. People with ADD are sick of hearing that they should be better organized. They need to be TAUGHT strategies! Punishing a messy binder won’t be very effective if you don’t teach him how to do it. There may be less loose papers in their binder, but lood look in their locker!

  14. Chili9573
    Chili9573 says:

    Negative reinforcement is not the same thing as punishment. Negative reinforcement is when you do something to avoid punishment, such as stopping at a red light to avoid a ticket. Punishment is getting the ticket because you ran the red light.

  15. Missnikitacooper
    Missnikitacooper says:

    Negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. Negative reinforcement involves removing something unpleasant, punishment involves giving something unpleasant.
    For example, if a child had a fear of a spider and the spider was then removed so the child was no longer afraid, this would be negative reinforcement. The child is MORE likely to repeat the behaviour because their fear has been enforced by the removal of the spider.
    An example of punishment, you get a parking ticket for parking where you shouldn’t have parked. In the future you park only within designated zones because you want to avoid being punished again. The behaviour is LESS likely to be repeated.

  16. KatieS
    KatieS says:

    I want to clarify that negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment.

    As stated above:
    “Negative reinforcement is when a certain stimulus/item is removed after a particular behavior is exhibited. The likelihood of the particular behavior occurring again in the future is increased because of removing/avoiding the negative stimuli.
    Negative reinforcement should not be thought of as a punishment procedure. With negative reinforcement, you are increasing a behavior, whereas with punishment, you are decreasing a behavior.”

    To read and learn more about positive and negative punishment please see the below link to my blog on punishment.

    • Todd Sell
      Todd Sell says:

      I have a soon that has had 5 surgeries before he was 1 year and 4 months. Three were open heart surgery. His condition is HLHS.
      He struggles in school and this article is a direction that he is in. His teachers don’t seem to understand this condition. They send him to the principals office and that he is just fine with going there. Doesn’t create a positive affect of getting him to do his school work.
      He will do his homework at home in less than 15 minutes. He sat all day and did nothing.
      The teachers have kept him from recess and gym ect and it doesn’t help. This only makes him worse and worse as the year goes on. I have had to use a lot of positive reinforcement to get him motivated, if I take to much away he becomes stagnet.
      Are they any research articles that I could have them read to help them with this situation?
      If to much negative enforcement is done to him he just stops in his tracks and won’t budge.

  17. Anthony Sprague
    Anthony Sprague says:

    Positive reinforcement- using positive stimulus to continue positive behavior. Telling your child you are proud of them( positive stimulus) for doing their homework (positive behavior). Thus, you are hoping they continue to do their homework to please you and continue receiving positive praise.
    Negative reinforcement- using negative stimulus to continue positive behavior. Nagging (negative stimulus) your child to do their homework (positive behavior). As a parent, you are hoping that your child will eventually do their homework (positive behavior) because they are tired of you nagging them (negative stimulus). In both positive and negative reinforcement, the desired end behavior is positive (doing homework).
    Punishment- using negative stimulus to extinguish negative behavior. Grounding (negative stimulus) your child because they are NOT doing their homework (negative behavior.)
    Hope this helps!! I recently took an educational psychology class
    Education student at Florida Atlantic University

  18. Svetlana Sonday
    Svetlana Sonday says:

    I totally comprehend the differentiation between negative reinforcement and punishment. Punishment is fundamentally a method of eliminating any desirable item, while also diminishing the undesirable behavior. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, does not decrease the likelihood of exhibiting a despicable behavior, it only increases it. That really is sensible. Thanks a million for writing this superb article on subtypes of reinforcement, anonymous author.


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