Define positive reinforcement in psychology

Positive Reinforcement: Definition, Theory, & Examples

Positive Reinforcement: Definition, Theory, & Examples

By Nathalie Boutros, Ph.D.
Reviewed by Tchiki Davis, M.A., Ph.D.

Learn what positive reinforcement is, how positive reinforcement impacts your life, and how to harness this powerful principle to improve your life and the lives of others.

*This page may include affiliate links; that means we earn from qualifying purchases of products.

Do you find yourself checking your social media feeds, visiting the vending machine, or clicking “add to cart” more often than you’d like? Do you wonder why you continue to do these things despite wanting to cut back? You might be spending too much time online, eating unhealthy snacks, or overspending because all of these behaviors are followed by positive reinforcement.  

In this article, we’ll define positive reinforcement, review the ways that positive reinforcement may impact your life, and outline how you might be able to use principles of positive reinforcement to effect change in your life.  

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What Is Positive Reinforcement? (A Definition)

Positive reinforcement is the process of increasing the future probability of some behavior by following that behavior with a pleasant or desirable consequence (Scott et al, 2017). In other words, positive reinforcement is when you act or behave in a certain way, get something that you like, and then become more likely to act or behave in that way again. When you log in to Instagram and see that your latest post has received a lot of likes and comments, you may find yourself checking Instagram more often. Similarly, when you visit the vending machine and get a delicious snack, you may find yourself making more trips to the vending machine.

Not every instance of an act being followed by a pleasant consequence qualifies as positive reinforcement. Central to the definition of positive reinforcement is an increase in the future likelihood of the behavior that came right before the consequence. It's no accident that the term “reinforce”, with its alternative meaning of strengthening, is used. In positive reinforcement, the behavior is strengthened by the reinforcer.

In this short clip from the TV comedy series “The Big Bang Theory”, one character, somewhat unethically, uses positive reinforcement to increase behaviors that he wants to see more of in his friend.

Video: ​Positive Reinforcement - The Big Bang Theory

What Is Positive Reinforcement in Psychology? (A Definition)

Positive reinforcement describes the process of increasing the future incidence of some response or behavior by following that behavior with an enjoyable consequence. The consequence is sometimes called a “positive reinforcer” or more simply a “reinforcer”. Behavior-increasing consequences are also sometimes called “rewards”.

Almost anything can be a positive reinforcer, and the items that will be effective reinforcers for one person may not be effective for another person. For example, a workplace incentive program that rewards employees with gift certificates to a steakhouse is unlikely to increase productivity in vegetarian employees.

Some items and experiences like food, sex, warmth, and social approval may be hard-wired to be reinforcers. These types of reinforcers are often called “unconditioned reinforcers” because they can strengthen behavior without any training or specific experience. Other reinforcers like money, name brands, and other markers of social status are examples of conditioned reinforcers. These are rewards that acquire their ability to increase behavior, usually through association with another reinforcer (Williams, 1994).

Does behavior always involve positive reinforcement?
​Behavior often occurs in the absence of positive reinforcement. For example, you may check your social media feeds often, but only sometimes get rewarded with new comments and likes. Why then does the behavior of checking your feeds persist? 

Decades of psychological research have found that intermittent schedules of reinforcement are extremely effective at maintaining behavior (Jenkins and Stanley, 1950). In an intermittent schedule of reinforcement, rewards only follow a proportion of the behaviors; many occurrences of the behavior are not followed by the reward.  

Intermittent schedules of reinforcement often produce behavior that is very resilient and difficult to eradicate. Gambling is a classic example of behavior that is only intermittently reinforced and that is notoriously difficult to eradicate. Online slot machines reportedly only pay out between 20-25 percent of the time (Hoffman, 2021). This infrequent, intermittent reinforcement ensures that players keep playing, even as they continue to lose.

Positive Reinforcement Theory

In 1911 Psychologist E.L. Thorndike articulated the “law of effect” which states in part that if a response or activity is followed by a “satisfying state of affairs”, then that response or activity will be more likely to be repeated in the future (Nevin, 1999). In 1938 this idea was further expanded by Psychologist B.F. Skinner, who applied the label of “positive reinforcer” to Thorndike’s “satisfying state of affairs”. In Skinner’s view, a stimulus is defined as a positive reinforcer based solely on the effect that it has on the immediately preceding behavior. If the behavior increases or becomes more likely, then the stimulus is a reinforcer. If the behavior decreases or becomes less likely, then the stimulus is a punisher.

Positive Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

The foundational principle of operant conditioning is the three-term contingency consisting of – antecedent-behavior-consequence (Skinner, 1938).

  • Antecedent – The signal that a particular response will lead to a particular consequence. In the absence of this signal, the response is less likely to be followed by the consequence. For example, the music played by the ice cream truck as it drives through the neighborhood is a signal that running outside with money will probably lead to ice cream. When there is no ice cream truck music, running outside with money is very unlikely to lead to ice cream.
  • Behavior – The action that produces the consequence and that is either increased or decreased in the future. All behaviors, both simple and complex, are subject to control by their antecedents and consequences. For example, a dog’s sitting behavior may become more likely if preceded by the command to sit (the antecedent) and followed by a treat (the consequence).
  • Consequence – The item or sensation that follows the behavior and that makes future incidences of that behavior more or less likely. Reinforcement increases the future probability of the preceding behavior, while punishment decreases the future probability of the preceding behavior. State control happens largely through punishment rather than through reinforcement. A speeding ticket is a punishment for the behavior of driving 35 miles per hour in a 25 MPH zone. After getting a speeding ticket, you’ll probably be less likely to speed when you see speed limit signs.

Importantly, both reinforcement and punishment are defined in reference to the effect that they have on behavior rather than on assumed pleasantness or unpleasantness. For example, while you may have enjoyed reading that 1000-page novel or watching that four-hour movie, you’re unlikely to ever again engage in the behavior of buying that book or that movie ticket. The book and the movie were enjoyable, but cannot be used as reinforcers.

Positive Reinforcement vs Negative Reinforcement

Operant approaches to psychology distinguish between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. In both positive and negative reinforcement, a behavior occurs, a consequence follows, and the behavior becomes more likely to happen again in the future. What distinguishes positive and negative reinforcement is that in positive reinforcement the consequence is something that is given or added while in negative reinforcement the consequence is something that is removed or taken away. 

Usually, the thing that is removed in negative reinforcement is something unpleasant, painful or annoying. For example, if putting on noise-canceling headphones is followed by a reduction in the intensity of annoying, unpleasant, or distracting background noise, you may thereafter become more likely to use the headphones. The reinforcement in this case was not the addition of anything pleasant but was the removal of something unpleasant.

Examples of both positive and negative reinforcement 
Both positive and negative reinforcement are involved in drug and alcohol addiction (Baker et al, 2004). Initially, taking the drug may produce positive feelings such as euphoria. This state of euphoria is the positive reinforcement that may cause the continuation and escalation of drug-use behavior. Continued use of the drug may lead to a state of dependency, in which not taking the drug for some time leads to feelings of craving or withdrawal. When the drug is then taken, these unpleasant feelings of craving and withdrawal are removed and diminished. In this state of addiction, the drug-taking behavior may no longer be primarily maintained by positive emotions and feelings but is instead primarily maintained by the removal or diminishment of negative emotions and feelings.

You may have experienced a transition from behavior maintained by positive reinforcement to behavior maintained by negative reinforcement if you are a long-term coffee drinker. Positive reinforcement may have initially driven your coffee-drinking behavior. You may have enjoyed the burst of energy that followed a cup of coffee, and therefore increased your coffee consumption. However, after many years of drinking coffee, your coffee drinking may now be primarily maintained by negative reinforcement. You may seek out that cup of coffee primarily to remove or reduce feelings of tiredness and grogginess.

Positive Reinforcement for Kids

Positive reinforcement is one way that adults signal to children the behaviors that are expected in our culture and in our society (Sigler and Aamidor, 2005). Positive reinforcement does not have to be intentionally given to be effective. For example, when you engage a child in an interesting and enjoyable conversation while that child is showing appropriate dinner-time behaviors such as correctly using utensils, chewing with a closed mouth, speaking at an acceptable volume, and remaining seated, you are using positive reinforcement. Attention and social engagement are the positive reinforcers for the appropriate meal-time behaviors. 

When the child shows inappropriate behavior, for example by standing on the chair, throwing food, and shouting, the enjoyable social engagement is probably removed. In the absence of reinforcement, these inappropriate behaviors should decrease while the more appropriate behaviors that are followed by reinforcement, should increase. For most children, these incidental instances of positive reinforcement experienced in the course of daily living will probably be mostly sufficient to ensure the eventual development of behaviors that are appropriate to the culture and society that the child is growing up in.

Some children, perhaps due to developmental disorders or environmental factors, may not develop culturally and socially appropriate behaviors in response to the incidentally-received reinforcement of daily living. For these children, positive reinforcement for desirable behaviors may need to be deliberate. The discipline of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is the systematic application of behavioral principles to clinically and socially relevant behaviors (Roane et al, 2016). It is one of the most popular interventions for use with children diagnosed with autism, who may show deficits in socially and developmentally appropriate behaviors such as language and interpersonal engagement. Rather than being a specific set of procedures, ABA is an approach that is tailored to the needs of each individual. 

Central to the ABA approach is the understanding that behavior that is followed by reinforcement will increase. The particular reinforcers that will be effective may differ from child to child and ABA supports the use of potentially idiosyncratic reinforcers, so long as they are effective (Roane et al, 1998). Similarly, the behavior that is targeted for increase will also differ according to the needs of the individual child and family. For example, a child who is about to start school may need explicit positive reinforcement to teach him or her to attend to a teacher. Another child may need positive reinforcement to encourage use of the potty.

Positive Reinforcement Examples for Adults

Positive reinforcement maintains much of adult behavior. Examples include:

  • Drug and alcohol use – Positive reinforcement is often involved in drug and alcohol addiction. For example, tobacco use may lead to feelings of mild euphoria, increased energy, reduced stress and anxiety, appetite suppression, and feelings of relaxation (Watkins et al., 2000). All of these pleasant sensations experienced after smoking a cigarette may be so powerful that they compel people to continue to smoke despite negative health effects and even despite significant efforts to stop smoking.
  • Social media or screens – Many people report that they spend more time than they would like on social media. If this is the case, your social media feed is probably a source of positive reinforcement. The behavior of checking your social media is positively reinforced by comments and likes on your posts, entertaining stories or images, updates on your friends and acquaintances’ statuses, and all of the other engaging content that exists on your screen. Your desire to spend less time on social media may not be strong enough to counteract the powerful influence of all of this positive reinforcement (Newport, 2019).

One way to shift positive reinforcement​
You may be able to counter some of the powerful effects of positive reinforcement that drive you to overeat, smoke, or spend too much time on social media by introducing another powerful positive reinforcer – the satisfaction of curiosity. Learning more, discovering, and insight are powerful reinforcers. Knowing this, you may be able to redirect your behavior away from actions that result in unhealthy or undesirable reinforcers and towards the satisfaction of curiosity. For example, when you are stressed and craving unhealthy food, you may be able to interrogate these feelings and get reinforced by insight and discovery. This reinforcement may take the place of reinforcement by the sugar and fat. The process of using mindfulness and increased body awareness as a reinforcer is described in detail in the video below.

Video: A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit

Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

Positive reinforcement is present in the classroom, regardless of whether or not it is intentionally incorporated. Reinforcement is defined by its effects on the preceding behavior. If a consequence is given and the behavior increases, then that consequence is a positive reinforcer, regardless of whether that consequence seems to have been enjoyed. This may be particularly relevant when considering the reinforcing value of negative attention. 

Imagine a child seated in the back of the classroom, not receiving any attention from peers or the teacher. When this child engages in disruptive behavior, the teacher may reprimand the disruptive child. This attention, albeit negative and not even necessarily enjoyed by the child, may increase future incidences of disruptive behavior (Partin et al, 2010).

Knowing what reinforcers are maintaining the problem behavior may help you to create effective classroom interventions. For example, it may be productive to teach the disruptive child more appropriate attention-seeking behaviors such as raising his or her hand. In this example, the reinforcement was not the problem, the behavior that was being used to access the reinforcement was the problem (i.e., the disruptive behavior). Solving the problem may be a case of identifying a more appropriate behavior to access the same reinforcer.

Positive reinforcement versus punishment​
Classroom management practices often resort to punishment to decrease or eliminate problem behavior (Maag, 2001). Punishment can sometimes seem easier and more immediately effective. Excluding the disruptive child from the classroom or moving his or her name into a red zone on a public behavior chart may reduce problematic behaviors in the short term. However, in the medium and longer-term such strategies may be ineffective and even psychologically damaging.

A better strategy may be to use positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement can be applied on a whole-group basis, for example to an entire class. In group contingencies, a group of students receives a reward contingent on some aspect of the group’s behavior (Kelshaw-Levering et al., 2000). For example, the entire class may get an extra 10 minutes of recess if all students finish their work on time. 

There may be many advantages to using such group contingencies. First, group rewards may encourage collaboration amongst students. Students who complete their work early may develop more motivation to help struggling peers. Such collaboration may benefit both students. 

Group contingencies may also prevent harmful and embarrassing stereotyping. Students who consistently fail to receive individual rewards may come to be identified as unintelligent or otherwise incapable while students who regularly achieve such rewards may be identified as teacher’s pets or nerds. Group contingencies, in which the entire class receives the reward may prevent this. Lastly, group rewards allow all students in the class to share in the excitement of receiving the reward. This may be particularly important for students who do not regularly earn individual rewards.

Positive Reinforcement Training

Positive reinforcement has been extensively used in animal training. Karen Pryor has popularized the use of clicker training in animal training circles (Pryor, 2019).

In clicker training, a reward, usually a food treat, is paired with the sound of a click. Positive reinforcement is much more effective at increasing behavior when the reinforcer is given immediately after the target behavior. When a short time delay is not possible, it may be useful to pair the reinforcer with a stimulus that can be delivered quickly. This stimulus can then be used to bridge the time gap between the behavior and the reward.

Clicker training has been successfully used to train dogs, horses, livestock, and other animals not usually considered trainable. The short video below shows a chicken that has been trained to walk in circles around the trainer upon hearing the word “circle”.

Video: Using Positive Reinforcement With a Chicken ​

Walking in a circle around the trainer was probably not a part of this chicken’s behavioral repertoire before training. This behavior was probably established through the process of “shaping” which is a training process wherein reinforcement is given for progressively closer approximations to the target behavior (Pryor, 2019). Initially, the chicken may have been rewarded for taking a single step after hearing the word “circle”. Once the chicken was reliably taking one step, the criteria for receiving the reward may then have been increased to two steps in the same direction. This process then likely continued until the chicken was walking complete circles around the trainer.

Any number of complex behaviors can be trained using the principles of positive reinforcement and the process of shaping. For example, in the video below a miniature horse was trained to be a guide for the blind. Complex behaviors taught to this horse included stopping at the curb, getting into a car, maneuvering obstacles, and communicating with a visually impaired human companion.

Video: Using Positive Reinforcement With a Horse

Articles Related to Positive Reinforcement

Books Related to Positive Reinforcement

Here are some books that may help you learn even more.

  • Bringing Out the Best in People: How to Apply the Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement​
  • Training the Best Dog Ever: A 5-Week Program Using the Power of Positive Reinforcement
  • Naughty No More!: Change Unwanted Behaviors through Positive Reinforcement

Final Thoughts on Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement, like many of the principles of behavioral psychology, has been subject to intense criticism over the years. Some critics claim that providing external rewards to increase desirable behavior, and withholding rewards to decrease undesirable behavior is manipulative and a threat to individual freedom and human dignity (Holt, 1964). These critiques may derisively call positive reinforcement “dog training” to argue that it is not appropriate or ethical to apply such techniques to human beings. 

However, a nuanced view of positive reinforcement regards the applicability of reinforcement to both humans and animals not as a demonstration of its indignity, but as a demonstration of its universality. Positive reinforcement happens every day, in interactions with the physical world and with other people. When you put on a new shade of lipstick and like what you see in the mirror you’ll probably be more likely to wear that lipstick again. Similarly, when a teacher delivers a lesson in a new and particularly engaging way, he or she may be rewarded by increased student interest and class participation. This increased engagement may drive the teacher to increase the use of this new teaching technique in the future.

Positive reinforcement has no inherent value, good or bad. It is a process that, if understood and effectively used, can increase behavior. By understanding and acknowledging its impact in our lives we can strive to use this powerful principle to create a world that is consistent with our values.

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  • Baker, T. B., Piper, M. E., McCarthy, D. E., Majeskie, M. R., & Fiore, M. C. (2004). Addiction Motivation Reformulated: An Affective Processing Model of Negative Reinforcement. Psychological Review, 111(1), 33–51.
  • Hoffman, R. (2021, July 25). Do you know how frequently online slot machines pay? The Sports Geek.
  • Holt, J. (1964). How Children Fail. New York: Dell
  • Jenkins, W. O., & Stanley, J. C., Jr. (1950). Partial reinforcement: a review and critique. Psychological Bulletin, 47(3), 193–234.
  • Kelshaw-Levering, K., Sterling-Turner, H. E., Henry, J. R., & Skinner, C. H. (2000). Randomized interdependent group contingencies: Group reinforcement with a twist. Psychology in the Schools, 37(6), 523–533. 
  • Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67(2), 173–186. 
  • Nevin, J. (1999). Analyzing Thorndike’s law of effect: The question of stimulus-response bonds. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 72 (3). 447-450. 
  • Newport, C. (2019). Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Penguin.
  • Partin, T. C., Robertson, R. E., Maggin, D. M., Oliver, R. M., Wehby, J. H. (2010). Using teacher praise and opportunities to respond to promote appropriate student behavior. 172, Preventing School Failure, 54(3), 172–178.
  • Pryor, K. (2019). Don't Shoot the Dog: The Art of Teaching and Training. Simon & Schuster.
  • Roane HS, Fisher WW, Carr JE. (2016). Applied behavior analysis as treatment for autism spectrum disorder. The Journal of Pediatrics. 175, 27–32.
  • Roane, H. S., Vollmer, T. R., Ringdahl, J. E., & Marcus, B. A. (1998). Evaluation of a brief stimulus preference assessment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 31(4), 605–620. 
  • Scott, H.K., & Cogburn, M. (2017). Behavior modification. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.
  • Sigler, E. A., Aamidor, S. (2005). From Positive Reinforcement to Positive Behaviors: An Everyday Guide for the Practitioner. Early Childhood Education Journal, 32 (4).
  • Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis. Appleton-Century.
  • Watkins, S. S., Koob, G. F., & Markou, A. (2000). Neural mechanisms underlying nicotine addiction: Acute positive reinforcement and withdrawal. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2(1), 19–37. 
  • Williams, B. A. (1994). Conditioned reinforcement: Experimental and theoretical issues. The Behavior Analyst, 17, 261–285. 

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Positive Reinforcement Examples - Psychology

What Is Positive Reinforcement | 4 Types of Reinforcement | Examples | Positive and Negative Reinforcement | Positive Reinforcement for Kids | Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom | Is Reinforcement Better Than Punishment | Reinforcement Schedules | Cons | How To Use

Positive reinforcement is a preferred disciplinary strategy in positive parenting because this method doesn’t involve aversive measures or punishment. However, this method doesn’t always work the way we think. Let’s find out what positive reinforcement is, its applications in everyday life, and the best way to use it.

What Is Positive Reinforcement?

In operant conditioning, positive reinforcement aims to increase desired behavior by adding a favorable stimulus right after that behavior occurs. It is rewarding someone for what they do, and this reward encourages them to do it again.

The reinforcing stimulus is a positive reinforcer. A positive reinforcer is something that a person usually enjoys or prefers, so it can motivate them to repeat the target behavior.

Positive reinforcement increases an individual’s tendency to adopt a new practice over time.

This conditioning method has gained popularity over other operant conditioning because it creates a positive learning environment preferred by parents at home and teachers in the classroom.

What are the 4 types of reinforcement?

In S.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning, the 4 types of reinforcement and punishment are positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.

While positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement use consequences to encourage a behavior, punishment uses consequences to discourage a behavior.

Positive punishment is adding an aversive stimulus to deter behavior and negative punishment is removing a favorable stimulus to do so.

Positive Reinforcement Examples

Here are some examples of positive reinforcement used in everyday life.

  • Dog trainers give dogs food rewards every time they raise their paws on command.
  • Mom gives a child an allowance for doing house chores.
  • The manager gives a worker a bonus for completing the project faster.
  • Dad praises his son for studying hard for the exam.
  • A toddler is given a piece of candy every time she uses the potty.
  • An athlete is given an award for running the fastest.
  • A teacher gives a student extra credit for turning in school work on time.
  • Employees are given attendance awards for not missing work.
  • A parent gives a teenager more privilege for getting good grades.
  • A kid is given a star sticker for doing homework.

The Differences Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement

So what is the difference between positive and negative reinforcement?

In psychology, positive and negative do not represent the quality of the reinforcers. Instead, positive refers to adding a stimulus, while negative refers to subtracting a stimulus.

Positive reinforcement adds a favorable stimulus to increase the probability a response will repeat. So, it is reasonable to believe that positive also refers to the quality of the reinforcement or the target action.

But this is not true.

The two methods, positive or negative, simply refer to whether a stimulus or consequence is being added (positive) or removed (negative).

Positive Reinforcement for Kids

Parents, especially those who practice positive parenting, often use positive reinforcement to motivate young children to behave.

These disciplinary practices are popular because they’re simple and easy to administer. They are also clear and produce predictable results. You do this, and then you get that. There is no confusion or unexpected outcome.

Parents often see fast results using positive reinforcement. The desired response can become habitual quickly.

This approach makes parents feel better about their parenting. They can use pleasant reinforcers instead of aversive consequences. There are no angry kids to deal with, making it an enjoyable experience for everyone involved.

Related: Shaping Psychology

Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

Many teachers also use positive reinforcement in their classrooms to control or change students’ problem behavior. Behavior charts are familiar classroom fixtures that serve as a form of positive reinforcement.

When students show appropriate or specific behavior, positive reinforcers such as points or tokens are put on the student’s chart. When the points accumulate to a certain amount, the students can exchange them for a small gift.

Avoiding punishment is a welcome change for both students and teachers. There is less of a power struggle, and since students are more receptive to positive reinforcement, this method seems to yield excellent results in a school setting.

Is Positive Reinforcement Better Than Punishment?

Positive reinforcement is often better than punishment. While punishment is sometimes quick in stopping negative behavior, it doesn’t teach what appropriate behavior is. Positive reinforcement shifts the attention to acceptable behavior by rewarding it.

For example, using treats to train dogs to perform tricks works extremely well. Elementary teachers giving out gold stars for promptly completed homework also see excellent results in motivating students.

Reinforcement Schedules

Schedules of reinforcement describe the frequency of reinforcement applications and the timing between them.

In order to form a new habit, reinforcement needs to happen repeatedly. Besides continuous reinforcement schedule, there are four types of intermittent reinforcement schedules:

  • Fixed interval – fixed time period between reinforcements
  • Fixed ratio – fixed number of times
  • Variable interval – variable time period
  • Variable ratio variable – variable number of times

Schedules of reinforcement can significantly affect the effectiveness of reinforcement. For example, in casinos, slot machines give out rewards randomly. When gamblers win occasionally, they are positively reinforced with variable ratio schedules, making the game highly addictive.

The Cons of Positive Reinforcement

Even though positive reinforcement seems highly effective, this isn’t always the case.

Positive reinforcement doesn’t always bring about a positive outcome because people are not simple machines that respond and forget. The stimuli used can have other effects on people’s motivation and desire, and those effects can be long-lasting.

Here are some drawbacks of using positive reinforcement.

Decrease Intrinsic Motivation

Researchers have confirmed that positive reinforcement can weaken a person’s intrinsic behavior, and therefore, lower the quality of the desired action​1​.

Long-Term Effectiveness

When you use a positive reinforcer to motivate, you have to keep providing for it to stay effective. As soon as the rewards stop, the behavior stops, too. This phenomenon is called extinction.

Ethics and Values

Perhaps the most problematic aspect of positive reinforcement is that it associates the action with the wrong stimulus. In parenting, the use of reinforcers can teach a child the wrong lesson.

For instance, when a child is given an allowance to do chores, they learn that they should take out the trash if, and only if, they get paid. Otherwise, it is not their responsibility.

Many parents think that this practice could teach a child about being responsible. However, instead of instilling responsibility, it is teaching the child to assign a monetary value to duties and only do the work if they are paid accordingly.

Positive Reinforcement Trap

Positive reinforcement can sometimes produce unintended adverse outcomes.

For example, whenever a child acts up, the parent gives them extra attention. The child quickly learns that their misbehavior can earn them extra attention. This unintended reward becomes a positive reinforcer to the child’s misbehavior. This type of positive reinforcement trap is counterproductive.

How To Use Positive Reinforcement

Despite the many pitfalls, positive reinforcement has its value and its place. Here is how positive reinforcement can be used effectively​2​:

1. Non-tangible awards are preferred over tangible rewards

To counter the problem of rewards reducing intrinsic motivation, use verbal praise instead of tangible rewards such as toys or allowance. According to psychology studies, a verbal reward is one of the most effective ways to use positive reinforcement.

2. Offer positive feedback as a reward

Praises should provide useful feedback about the process, not just the result. Be specific and avoid just saying, “Good job.” If the child took out the trash, consider praising them with a statement like, “Thank you! You did a great job tying the trash up nice and tight.”

3. When using praises, praise for the quality of action

Praises should not be given for just completing a task. The child should have completed the job well, considering their abilities.

4. Focus on positive behavior

Instead of giving a child extra attention when they misbehave, give it when they behave well to reinforce good behavior. When a child gets enough attention from parents from regular interactions during the day, they will not need to act up to get attention.

5. Give the reinforcement as soon as the action completes

Research has shown that the sooner the reinforcer is introduced after the target behavior, the more effective it is in motivating the new behavior.

6. No contingent reinforcement

Reinforcers should be unexpected as a variable ratio schedule of reinforcement is more effective than a fixed interval schedule.

An unexpected reward is often more effective in motivating the adoption of new behaviors. If a person expects a reward, it becomes a contingency. Regularly offering contingent rewards reduces intrinsic motivation.

Also See: Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

Final Thoughts

Using positive reinforcers to motivate a child’s behavior has benefits, but also problems. When used appropriately, positive reinforcement is highly effective, as parents who have potty-trained their toddlers over a weekend by giving out candies can attest.

However, at the end of the day, if the positive reinforcer is a bribe, it can backfire.

Children are smart. They will quickly figure out that if you need to use a bribe, the action probably is not something they will want to adopt in the long term. Motivate your child intrinsically instead of using extrinsic motivation is the best practice.


  1. 1.

    Cameron J, Pierce WD. Reinforcement, Reward, and Intrinsic Motivation: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research. September 1994:363-423. doi:10.3102/00346543064003363

  2. 2.

    Akin-Little KA, Eckert TL, Lovett BJ, Little SG. Extrinsic Reinforcement in the Classroom: Bribery or Best Practice. School Psychology Review. 2004;33(3):344-362.

About Pamela Li, MS, MBA

Pamela Li is a bestselling author. She is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Parenting For Brain. Her educational background is in Electrical Engineering (MS, Stanford University) and Business Management (MBA, Harvard University). Learn more

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Positive reinforcement - Psychologos

Positive reinforcement - something that happens simultaneously with an act and leads to an increase in the likelihood of this act in the future. Once again, it is important: unlike rewards, which can be given much later than what happened (rewarded according to the results of the competition), reinforcement should occur exactly at the same moment as the desired action itself. Well, or immediately after it - the main thing is that in the head (soul, body) these two moments are organically connected into one whole.

What can be positive reinforcement in life? These are very different things.

In life it can be difficult to make out who reinforces what in a given situation. When the experimenter reinforces the dog's salivary reflex by flashing the light, he controls the dog's behavior. But to the extent that the dog can control the flashing of the light, it also controls the behavior of the experimenter...

Mom calls the child, he ran - she hugged and kissed him. positive reinforcement. The child clung to her mother for this, the mother melted ... This is also a positive reinforcement, but here the child already controls the behavior of the mother so that she does what he likes more often.

Positive reinforcement is an effective tool, but few people know how to use it effectively, thinking through all the consequences. When parents approach the child, they reinforce the behavior that the child is doing at that time. If parents approach a small child when he smiles, take him in his arms when he reaches for them, talk to him when he walks with them - they raise a calm, cheerful, positive and loving child. If parents are very busy and approach the child only when he screamed or peed, they are raising someone who will increasingly cry and piss.

The boy was frightened, clung to his mother - mother stroked his head, he felt better. What will happen next? Then it will be more often next to mom - to be afraid ...

Unfortunately, natural positive reinforcers reinforce not only what we like, but everything. what happens well. The child successfully lied, they believed him - he liked it, he will be inclined to this in the future. On the other hand, if he was afraid, but told you the truth and you supported him, expressed your respect to him, you gave positive reinforcement to the habit of telling the truth.

Our habit of saying kind words to our loved ones, the habit of thanking even for the little things (for a delicious breakfast, for a pleasant or useful conversation, and just for the joy of being together), the habit of showing signs of attention is a valuable arsenal that strengthens our relationships and makes it possible to improve the things we need. relations.

Show your child your good emotions

By praise we usually mean sentences with the word “You”: “You are so brave!” "Well done!" "You helped me so much!" Praise with the I-message is even more effective: “I am very proud of you!” "I'm very happy!" . "Normal" praise shows the child: "My parents see that I'm good at something. " And praise with the I-message: “What I do is very important to my parents. My behavior makes them feel good. We are one." Such praise creates intimacy.

Emotions can be expressed without words. Spontaneous hugs, a gentle look, a smile, gentle stroking - all this penetrates the child right into the heart and has a response: the newborn smiles, the 2-year-old climbs onto your knees and hugs your neck, the 4-year-old gives you a kiss. Our children have an amazing ability to awaken good emotions in us in various ways. The positive cycle begins to move, especially if we are ready to see it and show our positive emotions.

Reinforcement - Psychologos

Film "Mowgli"

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​ Reinforcement is an instantaneous, positively or negatively influencing reaction of the teacher (or the environment) to a certain action of the student.

All elements are important in this definition.

"Instant" - the assessment of the student's action must be really instant, so that he can accurately associate it with some of his actions. If there are problems establishing this connection, behavior modification may not go the way the trainer planned.

"Positive or negative influencing reaction" - a positive reaction will tell you that you need to act in the future in the same way as the "learner" just demonstrated, and a negative one will advise you to look for other options for behavior.

"Educational or external environment" - "teachers" can be not only people. No wonder they say: "Life forced."

"For a certain action of the trainee" - remember that reinforcement is both a reaction to behavior and a stimulus for a certain further activity.

The reinforcement method is outwardly similar to the reward and punishment method, but essentially differs fundamentally. See article

Reinforcement can be positive or negative, direct or indirect, conscious or not, intentional or spontaneous, secondary or partial. Positive reinforcement is what reinforces the right and correct behavior. It can be an approving look, and praise, and goodies (for an animal). Negative - what we prevent unnecessary behavior. With good contact between the teacher and the student, a negative reinforcement can simply be a stern look, if there is no such contact, then a sharp phrase, frowned eyebrows, etc. Positive and negative reinforcement is carried out everywhere, although it usually has an unconscious character and is more often denied: “I didn’t reinforce anything, I just smiled and complimented." Reinforcement can occur and influence behavior spontaneously: the child has burned himself - he no longer pulls his hand to the fire. If reinforcement is carried out intentionally by someone, it, as a reinforcement method, has other names: training, the method of rewards and punishments, operant conditioning, education, etc. Reinforcement can be one-time and systemic. The child is burned - he no longer pulls his hand to the fire: here one negative reinforcement was enough. In other cases, repetitions are required to obtain a sustainable result, a system of reinforcements is required. A distinction is made between direct and indirect reinforcement. Indirect reinforcement is the observation of the behavior of others and what the consequences of such behavior lead to. Secondary reinforcement is distinguished from basic reinforcement. Secondary reinforcement is an associative connection of previously neutral events and signals with significant events, as a result of which previously neutral signals and events themselves begin to act as positive or negative reinforcement. Reinforcement is either complete or partial. With constant reinforcement, a reward is given for each correct response. With partial reinforcement, the reward is given only for some of the correct responses, say every third occurrence of the desired behavior, or every tenth, or its first manifestation every hour or every day.

Reinforcements are a huge and natural part of our lives.

The cat found the pedal in the Skinner box, pressed it and left the cage. Freedom in this case is the reinforcement of pressing the pedal.

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