Is the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment Necessary?

Professionals in the field of Applied Behavior Analysis ABA) strive to disseminate the technology to outsiders. Often, professionals must teach and train parents, teachers and professionals from other fields to utilize strategies for behavior change. The seemingly endless terminology and acronyms creates a significant barrier to accomplishing this task.

Much of the terminology within ABA provides clarification that sets the technology apart from that offered in other fields. At the same time, some terms create more confusion than clarification. Newcomers to the field spend considerable time studying the terminology rather than the technology. The terms positive and negative reinforcement and punishment appear to be among the most confusing for outsiders. This raises the question, is the distinction really necessary?

Terminology that is unnecessarily complex or confusing alienates practitioners. Rather than being seen as the source for answers, the terminology makes professionals unapproachable.

Understanding Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

The terms positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment create confusion when training new staff or collaterals. Many confuse positive punishment with negative reinforcement and frequently misuse the terminology. This can lead to ineffective implementation of of behavior change interventions.

When referring to reinforcement and punishment, the term “positive” simply means that a stimulus was added and the term “negative” means that a stimulus was removed. Even in the definition of the terms, you see the need for further clarification. A stimulus is a thing or event that evokes some type of behavior.

The below chart provides a visual to help with understanding.

PositiveNegative
ReinforcementStimulus is added,
resulting in behavior
increase
Stimulus is removed,
resulting in behavior
increase
PunishmentStimulus is added,
resulting in behavior
decrease
Stimulus is removed,
resulting in behavior
decrease

For more information about positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, read these posts: What I Wish I Knew About Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Understanding Consequence Interventions on Accessible ABA.

Take a look at these examples of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment:

Positive Reinforcement

Following your client stacking blocks, you offer praise and a short video, resulting in your client stacking blocks more frequently in the future.

Negative Reinforcement

Following your client asking you to turn off the music, you turn off the music, resulting in your client asking you to turn off the music more frequently in the future.

Positive Punishment

Following your client’s tantrum that included throwing toys, you require him to restore the environment, resulting in a decrease in the frequency of these tantrums in the future.

Negative Punishment

Following your client’s aggressive behavior, you restrict his access to recess, resulting in a decrease in the frequency of this behavior.

Does the Positive Exist Without the Negative?

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

I’m not trying to go all existential, but this is important in considering the necessity of the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. As you consider these examples, consider how the distinction becomes questionable during application:

  • Could you provide access to the praise and video if you hadn’t first restricted this access?
  • Would you be able to you turn off the music at your client’s request if you didn’t first expose your client to the music?
  • Could you require your client to clean up if you hadn’t first given him access to items to throw?
  • Would you be able to restrict access to recess if you didn’t grant access first?

Why Continue with the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment?

Given the frequent confusion in the terminology and the reality that one doesn’t exist without the other, why do experts in the field continue with the distinction? As a science, it is our duty to question the rationale behind our technology.

Philosophic Doubt

According to Cooper, Heron and Heward (2007), we are bound by “philosophic doubt” to be skeptical. This means that as professionals in a scientific field we question what is currently accepted as fact, look for evidence that our assumptions are incorrect, continually seek to expand understanding, and assume the potential of new information to override existing beliefs.

Although professionals in ABA continue to use these terms, we should question if the need to distinguish between them truly exists. Would referring to a condition as either reinforcement or punishment provide sufficient context? Continue to question and challenge, using philosophic doubt to ensure the efficacy of our field.

Learn More

It’s critical for the advancement of the field of Applied Behavior Analysis that we continue to evaluate why we do what we do. Professionals in the field must be intentional in their interventions, but must also carefully consider their use of terminology as well.

Jack Michael (1975) published Positive and Negative Reinforcement, a Distinction that is no Longer Necessary; or a Better Way to Talk About Bad Things in Behavior analysis: Research and application. Michael asked this question nearly 45 years ago yet there has been no change in the usage of the terminology.

References

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis, p. 6-7.

Michael, J. (1975). Positive and negative reinforcement, a distinction that is no longer necessary; or a better way to talk about bad things. Behaviorism3(1), 33-44.

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