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with Heather Gilmore, MSW, LLMSW, BCBA

Unwanted Effects of Reinforcement: The Bad Effects of a Good Intervention

Reinforcement is a highly recommended strategy in applied behavior analysis. However, it is important to consider the possible unwanted effects of reinforcement.

Let’s look over a few examples of some of the potential unwanted effects of reinforcement.

Examples of Unwanted Effects of Reinforcement

Examples of the potential unwanted effects of using reinforcement include but is not limited to the following:

  • Reinforcement in one setting could lead to a decrease in the target behavior in another setting (behavioral contrast)
  • Reinforcement of a specific behavior could lead to an increase in undesirable behaviors in that same functional response class
  • Similarly, reinforcement of a specific behavior could lead to a decrease in desirable behaviors in the same functional response class
  • When reinforcement contingencies are strong, maladaptive behaviors could develop, especially if the reinforcer begins to be available less often (ex: aggression)
  • Sometimes reinforcement contingencies can lead to low levels of energy or fatigue in an individual leading to less effort being applied to other behaviors that could in fact be more reinforcing or more beneficial for the person’s quality of life
  • Reinforcement contingencies for some behaviors can have a negative impact on a person’s health and wellbeing, such as gambling or addiction.
  • Some reinforcement contingencies are so powerful that they prevent people from acting with avoidance or escape when this response would be more beneficial to them (again, such as in the instance of gambling or addiction or even overeating, etc.)
  • Positive reinforcement can lead to problems with health, relationships, disease and cancer, and other negative outcomes for one’s life. Since immediate reinforcement contingencies are often more powerful than long-term, rule-governed contingencies, reinforcement can lead to these poor outcomes (Perone, 2003).

These are just some of the examples of unwanted effects of reinforcement.

This is not to say that reinforcement shouldn’t be used, but the potential unwanted effects should be considered.

Tips for Addressing Unwanted Effects of Reinforcement

Although there are countless ways to consider the potential unwanted effects of reinforcement, here are a few recommended tips.

  • Monitor the target behavior in multiple settings
  • Plan for generalization of the target behavior
  • Train other significant individuals on using reinforcement or teach self-management skills for a person to provide their own reinforcement in other settings
  • Monitor undesired or maladaptive behaviors through data collection
  • Use antecedent strategies to reduce the likelihood of undesired behaviors
  • Fade reinforcement strategically
  • Consider how to utilize naturally occurring reinforcement or to transition to this if contrived reinforcement is used
  • Teach self-management skills or create structure around an individual’s engagement with reinforcing activities
  • Address unhealthy behaviors, particularly those that strongly interfere with a person’s quality of life and goals and values for themselves (or for someone they are serving as caregiver for)
  • Teach healthy behaviors and reinforce these behaviors to prevent health and disease but continue monitoring for the above-mentioned unwanted effects of reinforcement
  • Utilize value-based strategies, such as through an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach, to help guide an individual to live their best life

Reinforcement is a highly recommended strategy for behavior change but be sure to consider the potential unwanted effects that this may create.


Perone M. (2003). Negative effects of positive reinforcement. The Behavior analyst, 26(1), 1–14. doi:10.1007/bf03392064

Unwanted Effects of Reinforcement: The Bad Effects of a Good Intervention

Heather Gilmore, MSW, BCBA

Heather is a freelance writer, Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), and social worker. Heather takes interest in topics related to parenting, children, families, personal development, health and wellness, applied behavior analysis, as well as Autism, ADHD, Depression and Anxiety. Contact Heather if you would like to inquire about obtaining her freelance writing services. You can view more articles and resources from Heather at and email her at [email protected] You can also advertise your autism services at one of Heather's websites: Heather is the developer of the "One-Year ABA Parent Training Curriculum."


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APA Reference
Gilmore, H. (2019). Unwanted Effects of Reinforcement: The Bad Effects of a Good Intervention. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 15, 2020, from