One of the most important aspects of applied behavior analysis (ABA) is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a vital component of effective behavior change and skill development. The correct use of positive reinforcement can result in your child learning new skills and increasing adaptive behaviors. Let’s discuss what exactly positive reinforcement is and how it’s used to shape behavior.
The ABC Model
Before we jump into defining reinforcement, we’ll review the A-B-C model used by ABA professionals. An underlying principle in applied behavior analysis is that behaviors do not occur randomly or for no reason. Every behavior has a reason, even if that reason is not directly clear to us.
The ABC model consists of recording data regarding the events directly before and after a particular behavior. Doing so helps us to understand how events are related to one another and how these events impact behavior.
The A, B, and C stand for:
Something that comes right before a behavior. This could be any stimulus change. It’s important to keep in mind that an antecedent is not necessarily what causes the behavior. It is simply what occurred right before the behavior.
Example: You tell your child “no”
What specifically the behavior looked like. It’s important to be objective and specific. Instead of saying “being disrespectful”, you might specify that your child protested by saying “I don’t want to!”
Example: Your child shrieks a high-pitched sound and stomps their feet.
Changes that occur directly after the behavior.
Example: You reiterate “your answer is no” and redirect your child to a different activity.
The consequence is where reinforcement comes in. Reinforcement is a type of consequence that results in an increase in behavior.
What is positive reinforcement?
There are some misconceptions about what exactly reinforcement is. Some people think reinforcement and bribery go hand-in-hand. Others think reinforcement means providing artificial “things” to get someone to do what you want. Neither of these is particularly true about reinforcement. Let’s define reinforcement to get a better picture of what is and is not reinforcement. We’ll start with the technical definition, followed by a breakdown of each component to make it clear.
The technical definition of positive reinforcement states that it occurs when a stimulus is added contingent on a particular desirable behavior, which results in an increased likelihood of that behavior. If that doesn’t make sense, don’t worry. Stick with us as we break it down.
What is a stimulus?
A stimulus can be any change in the environment. Adding a stimulus after a behavior means that following the behavior, something changed. For example, if you give your child a high-5 after they clean up their toys, the high-5 would be the added stimulus. When reinforcement occurs, that stimulus would be called a reinforcer.
Reinforcers are stimuli that increase the likelihood of a desired behavior occurring again. In the example above, the high-5 would be the reinforcer.
What does contingent refer to?
The definition of reinforcement included a stimulus that is added contingent on a particular behavior. Contingent means that in order to access that stimulus (or reinforcer), a specific desired behavior must occur.
If your child is given high-5s all day, whether he’s sitting on the couch watching TV or cleaning up his toys, then high-5s are not being provided contingent on the particular behavior of cleaning up toys.
Here’s another example to consider. When you work, you clock your hours or in some other way indicate that you completed the job expected of you. Typically, to earn a paycheck, you need to submit your hours worked or provide evidence that you completed the required tasks. In other words, earning a paycheck (positive reinforcement) is contingent on clocking your hours worked.
Why does positive reinforcement result in the desired behavior occurring again?
The final component in the definition of positive reinforcement is the increased likelihood of that behavior occurring. If the contingent stimulus change does not result in an increased occurrence of the behavior, then it is not positive reinforcement.
Reinforcement, by definition, always results in an increased future occurrence of a behavior.
Positive versus negative reinforcement
In behavioral terms, positive refers to adding a stimulus and negative refers to the removal of a stimulus. However, negative reinforcement can be a bit more complicated to understand. Negative reinforcement is the process of engaging in a specific behavior to remove an aversive stimulus, thereby increasing the future likelihood of that same behavior under similar conditions.
Examples of negative reinforcement
Let’s practice the concept of negative reinforcement with a few examples.
You have a killer migraine (this is the aversive stimulus-something unpleasant that you want to get rid of). You take pain medicine to reduce the migraine. Since the migraine goes away shortly after taking the medicine, you are more likely to take this medication in the future when you have a migraine. Taking the medicine is therefore negatively reinforced.
Here’s another example of negative reinforcement. Your child is sensitive to loud sounds. You are going to a public setting that may become loud. When it starts to get loud, you hand your child noise-canceling headphones which they put on. The behavior of putting headphones on is negatively reinforced by removing the aversive loud sounds. In the future, when your child is in a loud environment, they will be more likely to put their headphones on to escape the noise.
When determining whether positive or negative reinforcement is at play, consider whether an aversive stimulus is removed. If you are engaging in a behavior to remove an aversive situation, resulting in you doing that behavior more in the future, then negative reinforcement has occurred.
Preference versus reinforcer
A common misconception is that preferred items or activities are reinforcers. This is not always the case. Your child may really enjoy something, yet the presentation of that item may not necessarily have an effect on their behavior.
It is important to differentiate between a preference and a reinforcer. Often times they go hand-in-hand, but not always. If you think you’re reinforcing a behavior, yet the behavior does not increase, then the stimulus you’re using is not actually a reinforcer.
Consider the high-5 example. If you give your child a high-5 after they clean up their toys, yet the behavior of cleaning their toys does not increase, then the high-5 was not a reinforcer and reinforcement has not occurred.
It may take time to identify what stimuli are reinforcers for a particular individual. It’s helpful to start with their known preferences when evaluating potential reinforcers, but don’t get stuck expecting that a specific item must be a positive reinforcer. Remember, if it doesn’t increase a particular behavior when presented contingent on the behavior, then it’s not a reinforcer.
Isn’t reinforcement basically bribery?
A common misconception is that reinforcement and bribery are the same things. This is often stated by people who are concerned about using reinforcement with their children. Reinforcement occurs throughout our day, whether we’re consciously aware of it or not. A reinforcer does not have to be something you physically hand to someone for doing a good job. Anything can essentially reinforce behavior.
Let’s consider a scenario. A child makes a joke at recess. All of his peers thought it was hilarious and couldn’t stop laughing. This peer attention may result in an increase in making jokes in the future. If it does, then positive reinforcement would have occurred. If that child did not like the added attention, then the laughing could actually serve as a punisher, reducing the future likelihood of telling jokes.
So back to the question. Are reinforcement and bribery the same? No! In bribery, something is given before a behavior occurs, to entice the person to engage in the desired behavior. If you recall, reinforcers are consequences that come after the behavior. If you give the item before they engage in the behavior, then you cannot be reinforcing. Instead, you are bribing the person.
Another example! I want my son to do his homework right away after school. I tell him “here, I’ll give you a bag of cookies if you do your homework.” However, I give him the bag of cookies before he actually does the homework. This would be a bribe. Conversely, if I tell him he gets a bag of cookies if he does his homework, but the cookies aren’t actually given until after he completes the required work, then the cookies are a reinforcer, not a bribe.
Stimulus provided before a behavior= bribe.
Stimulus provided after a behavior= reinforcer.
Another differentiation between a reinforcer and a bribe is that with bribes, there is increase in the future likelihood of the behavior. With reinforcement, the end result is an increase in behavior. Often times when people present a bribe, they do so without intending to increase that person’s behavior in the future. Rather, they only care about whether the person engages in that behavior on that occasion.
Punishment versus reinforcement
So now that we’ve covered reinforcement, how does punishment differ? Well, punishment is essentially the exact opposite of reinforcement, in terms of the effect on behavior.
Reinforcement results in an increased behavior change, while punishment results in a decreased behavior change. If this sounds different from the definition of punishment that you are familiar with, you are not alone.
In mainstream terms, punishment is typically considered to be actions such as scolding, timeouts, “grounding”, etc. While all of these are potential punishment procedures, it is only considered punishment if it actually results in a decrease in behavior in the future. Behavior analysts key into whether those actions (AKA stimulus changes) result in a decrease in behavior. If your child hits and you scold them with “You do NOT hit!”, this would only be a punishment if the hitting occurs less often in the future.
A very common situation is when parents or therapists provide a consequence to negative behavior that they expect to act as a punisher (decrease the behavior), but it in fact acts as a reinforcer, by increasing the behavior. This is where the importance of data comes in. If your child is in ABA therapy, their treatment team will record and monitor data on target behaviors, such as how many times or for how long a particular behavior occurs. They will track when changes occur, to determine whether those changes are reinforcing or punishing the behavior.
Negative and positive punishment
As with reinforcement, there are also two types of punishment-positive and negative. In both types of punishment, the resulting effect is always a reduction of the behavior over time.
Positive punishment is the addition of a stimulus following a behavior, which decreases the likelihood of that behavior.
Example: A parent yells at their child for throwing a toy. Throwing occurs less often moving forward. The yelling was added, which made it ‘positive’ and the problematic behavior decreased, which made it ‘punishment’.
Negative punishment is the removal of a stimulus following a behavior, which decreases the likelihood of that behavior.
Example: A student pushes other kids at recess. The teacher sends that child to go sit down, removing them from the playground. The child’s behavior of pushing occurs less often in the future. The child was removed from recess, making it ‘negative’ and the behavior decreased, making it ‘punishment’.
Reinforcing behavior results in an increase in that behavior in the future. If the behavior does not increase, then reinforcement has not occurred. Positive reinforcement is a powerful behavioral principle that is used to increase communication, social skills, adaptive living skills, and more.
Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.