Negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement are two concepts from behavioral therapy that are likely to show up on the ASWB’s exams (both LMSW and LCSW). While we previously wrote a blog with a practice question and rationale on this topic, today we want to take a few minutes to hone in specifically on negative reinforcement examples, as this is one of the most misunderstood behavioral principles.
In operant conditioning, the word ‘reinforcement’ refers to strengthening (increasing) a desired behavior. So if I want a child to complete his chores, do his homework, etc., I can reinforce these behaviors to increase the likelihood of getting the desired behavior.
When it comes to reinforcement, one of the most important things to remember is that positive does NOT mean good and negative does NOT mean bad. Positive refers to adding something (think of a plus sign) to increase a behavior. Negative refers to removing something (think of a minus sign), also to increase the behavior. So what are our key points so far?
- Reinforcement (whether positive or negative) is about increasing a desired behavior
- Positive means adding something to increase the desired behavior
- Negative means removing something to increase the desired behavior
Negative Reinforcement Examples
1. A classic example of negative reinforcement is the beeping noise your car makes when you haven’t buckled your seat belt. The car makes this beeping noise in order to increase the likelihood of you buckling your seatbelt (so, buckling your seatbelt is the desired behavior). This is reinforced by removing the beeping sound when you buckle your seat belt.
Before: car makes beeping noise
Desired behavior: putting on seat belt
After: beeping noise stops
Outcome: the person is more likely to buckle their seat to avoid the beeping sound
2. Alarms serve a similar function. The desired behavior of an alarm is to wake you up. Turning off the alarm removes the alarm sound and increases the behavior of waking up.
Before: alarm makes noise
Desired behavior: waking up and turning off the alarm
After: alarm stops making noise
Outcome: the person will wake up in order to make the alarm stop
Sometimes we unintentionally reinforce behaviors without realizing we’re doing so. Here’s an example:
3. A child throws a temper tantrum at the dinner table because she doesn’t want to eat her dinner. The parents remove the child’s dinner (negative reinforcement) to get the child to stop throwing a temper tantrum (the desired behavior), but doing so makes it more likely she will throw a temper tantrum in the future when she doesn’t want to eat something.
Before: child throws a temper tantrum
Desired behavior: to stop the temper tantrum
After: child stops throwing a temper tantrum when dinner is removed
Outcome: the child is more likely to throw a temper tantrum in the future when she doesn’t want to eat something
4. A final negative reinforcement example is nagging. A child’s mom nags him to complete his chores. In order to stop her from nagging him (the removal of nagging), the child completes his chores (the desired behavior).
Before: chores are not completed and mom nags
Desired behavior: child completing chores
After: mom stops nagging and child completes chores
Outcome: the child is more likely to complete their chores to avoid their mom nagging them.
ASWB Exam Prep
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