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In operant conditioning, reinforcement is any change in an organism's surroundings that:

  • occurs regularly when the organism behaves in a given way (that is, is contingent on a specific response), and
  • is associated with an increase in the probability that the response will be made or in another measure of its strength.

For example: you give your dog food every time it sits when you tell it to. If the dog becomes more likely to sit when told to, sitting is considered to have been reinforced by the administration of food contingent on it.

Positive vs. negative

Positive reinforcement changes the animal's surroundings by adding a stimulus: a physical object (like a food pellet or paycheck) or energy (like light from a lamp).

Negative reinforcement changes the surroundings by removing an aversive stimulus - such as turning off a painful electric current or removing a hated ex-spouse's picture. Speaking colloquially, an aversive stimulus is something the animal finds "bad;" its removal is thus a "good" thing from the animal's point of view.

some "bad" thing
  (aversive stimulus)
some "good" thing
(reinforcing stimulus)
positive punishment
positive reinforcement
taken away negative reinforcement
negative punishment

Distinguishing "positive" from "negative" in these cases is largely a matter of emphasis. For example, in a very warm room, a current of external air serving as reinforcement may be positive because it is relatively cool but negative because it removes the uncomfortably hot air. Furthermore, the distinction seems to have no real use in research or applied psychology, although one may some day be found. Until then, many behavioral psychologists simply refer to reinforcement or punishment—without polarity—to cover all consequent environmental changes.

See also

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