Learn how to harness this powerful principle to improve your life and the lives of others.
Positive reinforcement is the process of increasing the future probability of some behavior by following that behavior with a pleasant or desirable consequence (Scott et al, 2017). In other words, positive reinforcement is when you act or behave in a certain way, get something that you like, and then become more likely to act or behave in that way again. When you log in to Instagram and see that your latest post has received a lot of likes and comments, you may find yourself checking Instagram more often. Similarly, when you visit the vending machine and get a delicious snack, you may find yourself making more trips to the vending machine.
Not every instance of an act being followed by a pleasant consequence qualifies as positive reinforcement. Central to the definition of positive reinforcement is an increase in the future likelihood of the behavior that came right before the consequence. It's no accident that the term “reinforce”, with its alternative meaning of strengthening, is used. In positive reinforcement, the behavior is strengthened by the reinforcer.
Almost anything can be a positive reinforcer, and the items that will be effective reinforcers for one person may not be effective for another person. For example, a workplace incentive program that rewards employees with gift certificates to a steakhouse is unlikely to increase productivity in vegetarian employees.
Some items and experiences like food, sex, warmth, and social approval may be hard-wired to be reinforcers. These types of reinforcers are often called “unconditioned reinforcers” because they can strengthen behavior without any training or specific experience. Other reinforcers like money, name brands, and other markers of social status are examples of conditioned reinforcers. These are rewards that acquire their ability to increase behavior, usually through association with another reinforcer (Williams, 1994).
Positive Reinforcement vs Negative Reinforcement
Psychologists distinguish between positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. In both positive and negative reinforcement, a behavior occurs, a consequence follows, and the behavior becomes more likely to happen again in the future. What distinguishes positive and negative reinforcement is that in positive reinforcement the consequence is something that is given or added while in negative reinforcement the consequence is something that is removed or taken away.
Usually, the thing that is removed in negative reinforcement is something unpleasant, painful, or annoying. For example, if putting on noise-canceling headphones is followed by a reduction in the intensity of annoying, unpleasant, or distracting background noise, you may thereafter become more likely to use the headphones. The reinforcement in this case was not the addition of anything pleasant but was the removal of something unpleasant.
Examples of Positive Reinforcement
Positive reinforcement maintains much of adult behavior. Examples include:
Drug and alcohol use – Positive reinforcement is often involved in drug and alcohol addiction. For example, tobacco use may lead to feelings of mild euphoria, increased energy, reduced stress and anxiety, appetite suppression, and feelings of relaxation (Watkins et al., 2000). All of these pleasant sensations experienced after smoking a cigarette may be so powerful that they compel people to continue to smoke despite negative health effects and even despite significant efforts to stop smoking.
Social media or screens – Many people report that they spend more time than they would like on social media. If this is the case, your social media feed is probably a source of positive reinforcement. The behavior of checking your social media is positively reinforced by comments and likes on your posts, entertaining stories or images, updates on your friends and acquaintances’ statuses, and all of the other engaging content that exists on your screen. Your desire to spend less time on social media may not be strong enough to counteract the powerful influence of all of this positive reinforcement (Newport, 2019).
You may be able to counter some of the powerful effects of positive reinforcement that drive you to overeat, smoke, or spend too much time on social media by introducing another powerful positive reinforcer – the satisfaction of curiosity. Learning more, discovering, and insight are powerful reinforcers. Knowing this, you may be able to redirect your behavior away from actions that result in unhealthy or undesirable reinforcers and towards the satisfaction of curiosity. For example, when you are stressed and craving unhealthy food, you may be able to interrogate these feelings and get reinforced by insight and discovery instead of sugar and fat.
Positive reinforcement has no inherent value, good or bad. It is a process that, if understood and effectively used, can increase behavior. By understanding and acknowledging its impact on our lives we can strive to use this powerful principle to create a world that is consistent with our values.
Newport, C. (2019). Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. Penguin.
Scott, H.K., & Cogburn, M. (2017). Behavior modification. In StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing.
Watkins, S. S., Koob, G. F., & Markou, A. (2000). Neural mechanisms underlying nicotine addiction: Acute positive reinforcement and withdrawal. Nicotine & Tobacco Research, 2(1), 19–37.
Williams, B. A. (1994). Conditioned reinforcement: Experimental and theoretical issues. The Behavior Analyst, 17, 261–285.