Positive reinforcement is the most important and most widely applied principle of behaviour analysis.
"Positive reinforcement is the most important and most widely applied principle of behaviour analysis" - Cooper, Heron and Heward (2007, p.257)
What is Reinforcement?
Miltenberger (2008, p.73) states that ‘reinforcement is the process in which a behaviour is strengthened by the immediate consequence that reliably follows its occurrence’. To “strengthen” a behaviour is to make it occur more frequently; as clarified by Michael (2004, p. 258) stating that 'when a type of behaviour is followed by reinforcement there will be an increased future frequency of that type of behaviour'.
This basically means that if you engage in a certain behaviour, and this behaviour gets you something that you wanted, then you are more likely to engage in that same behaviour again when you want the same outcome in the future.
For example, when you want to turn on your television you will press the “ON” button.
Before you pressed this button the TV was off but you wanted it on and so after pressing the button you got what you wanted. Therefore, in future, when you want the TV on you will press the ON button again and so positive reinforcement has occurred.
You won’t press the VOLUME button because when you have done this in the past it doesn’t turn on your TV, therefore pressing the VOLUME button when you want the TV to turn on will mean positive reinforcement does not occur.
Note though that making a behaviour occur more frequently is not the only “strengthening” that can occur. The duration, latency, magnitude and/or topography of behaviours can also be strengthened (Cooper et al, 2007).
What’s the “Positive” in Positive Reinforcement?
The term “positive” is used in conjunction with reinforcement to denote a specific form of reinforcement. It does not mean something “good” but instead the term positive relates more to the mathematical term of “adding” or “addition”.
This is because positive reinforcement is the addition of something as a result of a behaviour after you have engaged in this behaviour. Before you engaged in the behaviour, what you wanted was not present but after you engaged in the behaviour what you wanted is present.
Positive Reinforcement Example
Positive Reinforcement Does Not Occur: Johnny comes running into his mother after being outside in the hot sun playing with his friends. He exclaims “I’m really thirsty! Can I have some coke please Mam?” His mother says “No Johnny, now run along back outside to your friends”. Johnny isn’t very happy with this and he decides there’s no point in asking for coke the next time he wants some because he didn’t get any this time.
In this example, although Johnny asked for coke he was not given it. Therefore even after engaging in the behaviour of requesting coke, positive reinforcement did not occur. Additionally, because he was not given coke by asking for it he has decided not to ask next time and so there will not be an increase in the future frequency of that behaviour.
Positive Reinforcement Does Occur: Johnny comes running into his mother after being outside in the hot sun playing with his friends. He exclaims “I’m really thirsty! Can I have some coke please Mam?” His mother says “Of course you can Johnny!” and promptly gets a bottle of coke from the refrigerator and pours him a glass. He gulps it down and decides that the next time he wants some coke he’ll make sure to ask again.
In this example, Johnny had no coke but wanted some, his behaviour (asking for coke) led to him getting what he wanted. Johnny’s request for coke was positively reinforced by him being given some. By being given what he wanted he is also more likely to ask this question again at a later time when he is thirsty and so there will be an increased future frequency of that behaviour.
Reinforce the Behaviour…not the Person
In the example above where positive reinforcement did occur, it is important to note that it was Johnny’s behaviour that was reinforced and not Johnny himself. It would be incorrect to say “Johnny was positively reinforced with coke” because it was his request (behaviour) for coke that was reinforced.
Instead you would say “Johnny’s request for coke was positively reinforced”. In the words of Cooper et al (2007, p. 258) ‘behaviours are reinforced, not people.’
Educational Example of Positive Reinforcement
A teacher is working through a discrimination programme where she places photographs of common fruits on the desk in front of her student, Brian, and then asks him to point to specific ones. For example, the teacher will place one photo of an apple and one photo of an orange on the desk and then says “point to apple” and Brian must point to the apple.
The teachers have found that Brian is only getting 2 out of 10 discriminations correct. As a way to try and increase his correct discriminations (his behaviour) they have decided to use a token economy as a way of providing positive reinforcement to Brian for responding correctly.
For every correct response the teacher will give Brian a token. These tokens are like the student’s version of money where he can earn them for completing his work and then use them to buy things that he wants such as fun activities, breaks from school work or sweets. The more correct responses he makes the more tokens he earns and so there will (or should) be an increased future frequency of correct responding because more tokens means more fun activities.
Positive Reinforcement Does Occur: on the first day using the token economy, Brian gets 6 out of 10 correct; on the second day he gets 8 out of 10 and on the third day he gets 10 out of 10. Remember, he is given tokens when he responds correctly; these tokens are “added” to the amount he has after he responds correctly and because his correct responses have increased it can be said that positive reinforcement is occurring.
The tokens act as a form of positive reinforcement because before pointing to the correct photo he wouldn’t have a token and then after pointing to the correct photo he gets one. From looking at how his correct responding increased, it could be said that Brian wanted to earn the tokens because earning them leads to him being able to trade them for a reinforcing activity and therefore he is more likely to continue to respond correctly when using this token economy.
Positive Reinforcement Does Not Occur: on the first day using the token economy, Brian gets 3 out of 10 correct; on the second day he gets 2 out of 10 and on the third day he gets 2 out of 10 again. In this case, positive reinforcement has not occurred because his responding has not increased. Even though he is being given tokens for correct responding and that he can trade the tokens for fun activities, his correct responding has not increased and therefore positive reinforcement is not occurring.
- Cooper, J., Heron, T., & Heward, W. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis. New Jersey: Pearson Education.
- Malott, R. & Trojan-Suarez, E. (2004) Principles of Behaviour. New Jersey: Pearson Prentice Hall.
- Miltenberger, R. (2008). Behaviour Modification. Belmont, CA. Wadsworth Publishing.