LMSW Exam Prep: Understanding Negative Reinforcement

By Emily Pellegrino on October 5, 2012

A rat holding a sign that says

This week’s LMSW exam prep topic is one that I’ve found is easy to confuse: negative reinforcement. We have B.F. Skinner to thanks for this term as he was the researcher who developed operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a form of learning where a person’s behavior is modified through both positive and negative consequences by using either reinforcement or punishment. Let’s get started with a sample question.

Negative Reinforcement Examples

When I was studying for the LMSW exam, I found that an easy way to remember a lot of these terms was by thinking of not only the definition of the term, but an example of the term as well. One example of negative reinforcement is when we turn off the alarm clock in the morning. We hear the annoying sound and therefore press the off button (or if you’re like me, the snooze button). The alarm will then stop making noise and you hopefully get out of bed. The negative stimulus or event is thus removed and the behavior (turning off the alarm and getting out of bed) increases. Another example is using wind shield wipers while driving in the rain. The rain makes it difficult to see, but if we use our wipers it makes the wind shield clear again and easier to drive. The Social Work Dictionary defines negative reinforcement as, “the strengthening of a response through escape or avoidance conditioning” (Baker, 2003).

Negative Reinforcement Sample Question:

Which of the following BEST defines negative reinforcement?

A. The taking away of an unpleasant stimulus to increase certain behavior or response.

B. The adding of a pleasant stimulus to increase a certain behavior or response.

C. The adding of an unpleasant stimulus to decrease a certain behavior or response.

D. The taking away of a pleasant stimulus to decrease a certain behavior.


The best answer here is A. The other possible answers are definitions of (B) positive reinforcement, (C) positive punishment, and (D) negative punishment. These terms are all concepts of operant conditioning, and are terms that could potentially show up on the LMSW exam. One way to remember these terms is by noticing that positive and negative reinforcement are all done to increase a certain behavior, whereas positive and negative punishment are all done to decrease a behavior.

Next week on the LMSW exam prep blog: Outreach

Think our straightforward, sensible approach could help you PASS your LMSW exam? If you’re preparing for the social work exam, check out our LMSW Study Materials. Learn more about our exam prep at the The Therapist Development Center home page or take the free ASWB practice exam.

Looking for more practice questions and some study tips? Check out our new Social Work Exam Study Guide:

LMSW Exam Prep, Understanding Negative Reinforcement

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