Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Skinner's Revolutionary Theory

Burrhus Frederic "B. F." Skinner

Skinner was born on the 20th of March in 1904. He was a man of great thinking. In his life time he achieved many titles, psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher. Also in 1958 he became the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. He was a firm believer of the idea that human free will was actually an illusion and any human action was the result of the consequences of that same action. By this he meant that reinforcements, such as things that have happened to us in the past, are what causes our actions, not the objective itself. He came up with two different types of reinforcements, positive and negative. They both have results and they both work it just depends on the situation and how they are approached.

The Positive Side of Things

Positive reinforcement allows for individual variation, so that what reinforces one person on one occasion may not reinforce another or even the same person on another occasion. However, there are many reinforcers that work for most people. For example, if you make eye contact with a person who smiles at you in the course of a conversation, you will make more eye contact with that person during your conversation. Smiling and making eye contact are simple but powerful reinforcers of social behavior. If you give a child a piece of candy each time he says "please" or "thank you" she will be more likely to use those words again in the same context. But reinforcers don’t have to be things. If you tell an employee "Good job!" each time he gets a task done on time he will be more likely to work harder at the next task. Positive reinforcement is strongest when it occurs just after the behavior you want to increase. It weakens the longer you wait to use it.

Negative Causes Results

Lots of our daily habits, especially those that momentarily relieve stress or discomfort, operate within the framework of negative reinforcement. In a study years ago at the University of Oregon people were observed at a particularly long traffic light to see what they would do with their hands during the two minutes they had to wait to go. Smokers often lit up at this intersection, whereas other people would pick their noses or bite their fingernails. (Today they would probably flick open their cell phones.) Why? Probably because each of these simple actions provided just enough "relief" from the discomfort to be reinforcing and thus became habits.