What is negative reinforcement?
Negative reinforcement has to do with how a behavior is followed by the “removal, termination, reduction, or postponement of a stimulus” and then that behavior happens more often in the future (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2014).
So, negative reinforcement like positive reinforcement, involves a behavior happening more often as a result of what happens after the behavior.
However, negative reinforcement includes one of the following as the event following the behavior:
- Something is removed
- Something is terminated or ended
- Something is reduced
- Something is postponed
Four-Term Contingency of Negative Reinforcement
Negative reinforcement involves a four-term contingency. The four parts of this contingency include the establishing operation, an SD (discriminative stimulus), the response or behavior, and the SR- or the abolishment or reduction of the EO.
An Example of Negative Reinforcement
Let’s look at an example of negative reinforcement with all four parts of the contingency in mind.
A young child is crying.
The child puts his hands up toward his mother while crying.
The mother picks up her child.
The child stops crying.
*Impact as a Result of Negative Reinforcement acting on the Mother’s Behavior
The mother picks up her child more often in the future when her child cries and, especially when the child reaches his hands toward the mother.
Let’s review how the example above fits with the definition and characteristics of negative reinforcement.
- A behavior occurs – in this case, the mother picks up her child
- The behavior is followed by the termination of a stimulus – in this case, the child stops crying
- The behavior occurs more often in the future – The mom picks up her child more often in the future when her child cries.
A Side Note
Just a quick note about the example above when thinking about child development and parenting strategies…
The intention of this example is not to say whether a parent should or should not pick up their child when the child cries.
For younger kids, especially infants, picking them up when they cry can be beneficial to their development.
Three Types of Negative Reinforcement Contingencies
There are three types of negative reinforcement contingencies.
One form of negative reinforcement is seen in situations that result in the termination of a stimulus.
This type of negative reinforcement allows someone to escape an experience.
Some examples of an escape contingency that results from negative reinforcement include:
- Reducing or terminating a loud noise
- Covering your eyes with sunglasses to reduce sunlight in your eyes
- Walking away from an argument with another person
- Moving away from a fire to escape the heat
- Spitting out some food to get rid of a bad taste
The type of negative reinforcement that involves an avoidance contingency is a common experience that we all experience in many everyday activities. This is also known as discriminated avoidance.
This type of negative reinforcement allows a person to behave in a way that prevents or delays an experience.
Some examples of an avoidance contingency resulting from negative reinforcement include:
- Not going to class to avoid or postpone taking a test that you know is happening that day
- Washing your hair to prevent your hair from becoming dirtier
- Not going into unfamiliar places alone (staying in familiar places or staying with someone you know in public) to avoid unsafe encounters with strangers
- Walking away when you see a dog or wild animal to prevent being hurt
- Checking the date on milk to avoid drinking rotten milk
- Holding the handle side of a knife to avoid getting cut
Free-operant avoidance involves the avoidance behavior happening at any time. It is “free to occur.” The behavior will delay an unpleasant experience.
Free-operant avoidance differs from the typical avoidance contingency in that a signal for the unpleasant experience does not have to be present.
Some examples of a free-operant avoidance contingency resulting from negative reinforcement include:
- Doing your homework right after school because you know that your mom will send you to your room later if you don’t have it done when she asks (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2014)
- The stay-at-home parent doing the dishes at some point during the day because they know the parent who works outside the home will complain later in the day if they see dirty dishes in the sink
- Putting lotion on your hands because you know that you will eventually get dry, itchy skin if you don’t
Breaking Apart the Three Types of Negative Reinforcement
As a review, the three types of negative reinforcement contingencies include: escape, avoidance, and free-operant avoidance.
Let’s look back at the definition of negative reinforcement and briefly explore how the three types of negative reinforcement fit with the characteristics of negative reinforcement.
We will take one scenario identified above and pinpoint the characteristics of negative reinforcement in each of them.
|Scenario||Type of Negative Reinforcement||Behavior||Consequence||Future Impact|
|Covering your eyes with sunglasses to reduce sunlight in your eyes||Escape contingency||Putting sunglasses on||Reduces sunlight to the eyes||Puts sunglasses on more often when there is bright sunlight|
|Holding the handle side of a knife to avoid getting cut||Avoidance Contingency||Holding the handle of the knife||Reduction of chances of getting cut||Holds the knife by the handle more often|
|Doing your homework right after school because you know that your mom will send you to your room later if you don’t have it done when she asks||Free-Operant Avoidance Contingency||Doing homework||Avoid getting sent to your bedroom||Does homework after school more often|
Cooper, Heron, & Heward. (2014). Applied Behavior Analysis. 2nd Edition. Pearson Education Limited.