Classroom Exercise: Negative Reinforcement Versus Punishment
Negative reinforcement, which is frequently confused with punishment, may be psychology’s most often misunderstood concept. Robert Tauber provides a classroom exercise to teach the distinction between negative reinforcement and punishment. Begin by stating that operant conditioning, when properly applied, can effectively modify the behavior of others. However, to apply a “carrot and stick” approach successfully, users must understand which consequences are available as carrots to strengthen desired behaviors and as sticks to weaken undesired behaviors.
Next, administer Handout 7–6, Tauber’s Negative Reinforcement Quiz. After giving students a few minutes to respond, ask for their answers. Many, perhaps most, will answer the first question with “punishment” or something similar. They are likely to answer most of the other questions incorrectly as well, concluding that they would not use negative reinforcement in the future (question 5).
Introduce the headings of the following Consequence Matrix. (Tauber recommends use of a transparency but the matrix can also be drawn on the chalkboard.)
Stimulus Type Supply a Stimulus Remove a Stimulus
(Something desired) Positive Reinforcement Time-out* or Punishment
(Something not desired) Punishment Negative Reinforcement
For example, a child misbehaving at a birthday party may be required to sit on a chair in the laundry room for 5 minutes. (The situation from which a person is withdrawn must be enjoyable and reinforcing.)
Lead students through the matrix, beginning with “supply an appetitive stimulus”; fill in each of the boxes as the correct answer is given (in this case, positive reinforcement). By the time you ask, “What is it called when someone removes an aversive stimulus?” most students will answer “negative reinforcement,” although reluctantly. Then ask, “Given that negative reinforcement involves the removal of an aversive stimulus, is it used to strengthen or weaken behavior?” Although there may be some hesitation, most will now recognize that negative reinforcement strengthens desired behaviors.
You may now want to review the quiz. Negative reinforcement is clearly not a synonym for punishment. Point out that the correct answer to the second question is “b” and the correct answer to the third is “yes.” Because both positive and negative reinforcement are used to strengthen behavior, students answering “yes” to the fourth question and “no” to the fifth may want to reconsider their answers.
End the discussion by giving some examples of negative reinforcement and punishment. “If you clean your room, you will no longer have to stay inside” illustrates negative reinforcement. “Because you did not clean your room, you will have to stay inside today” illustrates punishment. The first statement says, “If you do what I want (clean your room), I will remove an aversive stimulus (you no longer have to stay inside).” The second statement says, “Because you did not do what I want (clean your room), I will supply an aversive stimulus (you must stay inside).” Ask your students to volunteer their own examples of contrasting statements.
Summarize: “Negative reinforcement and punishment are used for entirely different purposes. Negative reinforcement strengthens behaviors, whereas punishment weakens behaviors.”
Tauber, R. (1990). Teaching the distinction between negative reinforcement and
punishment. In V. P. Makosky et al. (Eds.),
Activities handbook for the teaching of psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 99–102).