How to Understand Positive Reinforcement

So you want to learn about positive reinforcement. Good for you! Positive reinforcement is a key concept within the field of behavior analysis in the discipline of psychology. First defined by B.F. Skinner, the method achieved further attention when animal trainer Karen Pryor wrote the bestselling book Don't Shoot the Dog! The New Art of Teaching and Training. Pryor defines positive reinforcement as "anything which, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again."

While at its most general, positive reinforcement could be said to be a method of training using a reward-based system, the technicalities of defining behavior and its result have lead to the meaning of positive reinforcement becoming rather confused. In order to alleviate some of this confusion, this article sets forth explanations to help you gain a better understanding of what positive reinforcement is about.


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    Understand the basics of establishing positive reinforcement. Similar to a reward (although more precise than a reward), a positive reinforcement is something a human or an animal will put in effort to receive. You can identify a positive reinforcement when three conditions have been met:[1]
    • A consequence is presented dependent on behavior.
    • The behavior becomes more likely to occur.
    • The behavior becomes more likely to occur because and only because the consequence is presented dependent on the behavior.
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    to getting yourself to eat more fruit.]]Be aware that positive reinforcement occurs in the daily life of humans and animals. Positive reinforcement isn't just for animal training––you train yourself and others every day in the methods of positive reinforcement, even without conscious input. For example, when you give a child a piece of candy for good behavior or scold your spouse for forgetting to buy milk at the grocery store, you're training (or attempting to train) a behavior. Positive reinforcement can be more pleasant and effective than other training methods.
    • If you're trying to improve your ability to play tennis, you can use positive reinforcement. Try giving yourself a pat on the back whenever you're playing well, and telling yourself "Ah well, I'll try again" when you don't.
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    • If you're trying to make your daughter call more often, stop complaining about it and make the times that your daughter does call enjoyable. Talk about your daughter's interests, and plan something fun like shopping if you can.
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    Recognize appetitive stimulus. This is a positive outcome; for example, being thanked after giving a person a gift. The opposite of appetitive stimulus is aversive stimulus, which is a negative outcome; for example, a teenager being grounded after disobeying her parents. Skinner states that appetitive stimulus is more powerful than aversive stimulus; in other words, you're more likely to receive expensive gifts if you reward the giver for giving you presents, rather than reprimanding him for not buying you a more expensive one.
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    Distinguish when appetitive stimulus is given. This is positive reinforcement: when a dog is given a treat after performing a trick, the treat is an appetitive stimulus and the dog is being trained using positive reinforcement. You can define positive reinforcement as Pryor did, as "anything which, occurring in conjunction with an act, tends to increase the probability that the act will occur again," or simply as a positive reaction to a behavior.
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    Recognize negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is a complicated subject, but generally this aspect is recognized as aversive stimulus being given and then retracted once the desired behavior as occurred. A horse, for example, is trained to move forward using negative reinforcement: it is nudged, kicked, spurred, etc. until the horse moves forward, at which point the aversive stimulus immediately ceases. The horse moving forward is the behavior; negative reinforcement, in this scenario, has been used with success.
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    Understand the role of punishment. There are two basic forms of punishment: positive punishment and negative punishment:
    • Positive punishment is adding an aversive stimulus to end or decrease a behavior. An example of this would be yelling at Karen Pryor because you don't like her book. The yelling is aversive stimulus, which you are using to end the behavior of selling her book: you are using positive punishment to attempt to train Pryor.
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    • Negative punishment is the taking away of an appetitive stimulus to change, create, or end a behavior; for example, grounding a child. Spending time with friends out of school is an appetitive stimulus that the parent is removing via grounding the child - the parent is using negative punishment.
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    Recognize the advantages of positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement training is based on a positive experience - receiving appetitive stimulus, or in other words, rewards. Whether you're trying to teach your dog to sit or yourself to start exercising, positive reinforcement is a powerful - and enjoyable - tool. Training using positive reinforcement is more fun, and often more effective, than training using a more traditional punishment-based system.
    • However, realize that punishment has its own advantages. Positive punishment is necessary in situations such as a child playing with a sharp object, or a dog growling at a passerby: the behavior must be stopped now, and positive punishment will be very effective. Negative punishment is also more appropriate in certain situations, as is negative reinforcement.
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    Understand how to employ positive reinforcement. As described above, positive reinforcement is very useful in achieving a variety of goals, but there are a few basic rules for using it:
    • Correct timing: Positive reinforcement is only effective when used exactly when the behavior occurs - a dog being trained to sit must be in the sit position when the treat is given. If the treat is given once the dog is standing up, he is being rewarded for standing up; if you tell your spouse (s)he looked gorgeous last night, the reward is equally late and ineffective. Rewarding too early is ineffective as well: for example, if you're crate training a dog, attempting to entice the dog in with a treat and letting him eat it before he enters the crate is bribing the dog, not training the dog.
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    • Correct rewards: Rewards should be as small as possible: give a child an M&M, not an ice cream sundae. They should be unpredictable - lottery machines, for example, create addictions by using an unpredictable schedule of reinforcement: even if all they're winning is quarters, dimes, and ten-dollar bills, many people have been effectively trained by the lottery machine to continue playing for the thrill of a win. Giving a reward for nothing can also be effective in minimum amounts, as is giving a "jackpot," or especially large, reward.
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    • High enthusiasm: Positive reinforcement depends on the trainee remaining enthusiastic and happy. No matter if you're teaching a child to read or a dog to heel, remember to keep training sessions frequent and short, keep goals easily achievable so rewards are often given, stop and take a break if you're getting stressed or frustrated, and end on a high note.
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    • Consistency: If you reward a dog for sitting, and then don't the next time it sits, you are not being consistent enough. However, if you give a Milk Bone once and a slice of a hot dog the next time, you are being consistent enough - to be consistent enough, you will simply have to choose your criteria and stick with it, until the behavior is good enough to up the ante. An example would be if you were training a parrot to step up:
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      • Your original criteria would be to have the bird stay calm while your finger is in the cage. You reward the parrot with a treat every time it remains calm.
      • Now you up the ante by making your criteria to have the parrot stay calm while your finger is close to him. You reward the parrot with a treat every time it remains calm. You're making the criteria harder, but still staying consistent by rewarding the parrot; you continue training in this manner.


  • Positive reinforcement is not a bribe. First, a bribe is something unacceptable or illegal. Second, positive reinforcement is about seeking to bring about desirable behavior and in the case of humans, this is done by teaching responsibility for behavior.
  • For children, emphasize not just the fact that something is good, but why it is good. This will help them understand and think independently. For example, when they pick up their toys, explain why a clean room is so much easier and nicer to live with.
  • Look for a good university online tutorial in positive reinforcement if you're interested in testing your understanding.
  • For a reinforcement to work, it must be something valued by the person or animal. This can mean that you have to tailor it according to the individual. While this means more effort initially if training a group, the outcome is worth it.


  • The reinforcement should not be ambiguous or insincere.
  • The reinforcement must be age and species appropriate.
  • Never use fulfillment of basic needs (e.g. meals) as reinforcers, or make them dependent on achieving a certain task.
  • Overuse of reinforcers, or turning everything into a reinforcer, can be dangerous to a child's psyche (e.g. autism ABA therapy, which sometimes results in PTSD). You do not want a child to become dependent on praise and overly compliant to the point where they don't know how to say no. They also need to feel like they can access things they love on their own, without needing to perform a certain task first.
  • Punishments should not involve pain or discomfort, nor should they cause serious distress. Spraying vinegar in a child's mouth is not a positive form of punishment. It is not ethical to lock children in rooms, or destroy things of theirs (e.g. a tower of blocks).

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