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Explanations > Conditioning > Reinforcement

Description | Example | Discussion | So what?



Reinforcement is anything that tends to increase either the intensity or frequency of an act. It is based on the principle that we seek to do more of what makes us feel good.

A reinforcement is something that is sensed at the same time as an act, such that the reinforcement becomes mentally linked with the act. The reinforcement hence may become a stimulation that causes the act to happen, where the act is now a response to the reinforcement rather than whatever the stimulation was initially.

The strength of a response may be measured with such as the intensity of emotion experience, the degree of physicality in the response or the alacrity with which the response is gained.

The frequency of the response may be measured by the probability of the response, given a stimulus and the number of times that the response is achieved.

Timing is important in reinforcement. When a reinforcement is applied immediately after a behavior, then the causal connection is easier for the other person to identify and internalize. When there is a delay, that connection becomes increasingly difficult to make and hence the reinforcement becomes less effective or takes longer to effect the desired change.

Intrinsic reinforcement

Intrinsic reinforcement is reinforcement that is done internally. In other words it is something we do to ourselves, although this may be done with external stimulus, such as thanks or smiles.

Extrinsic reinforcement

Extrinsic reinforcement is reinforcement from without, clearly outside of our internal thinking. Classic examples of extrinsic reinforcements are money and physical punishment.

Primary reinforcement

Primary reinforcement has a clear causal connection between behavior and reinforcement, for example where complying with a simple request results in the reinforcement of thanks.

Secondary reinforcement

Secondary reinforcement is less clear and is learned only through experience or musing. Thus, for example, a person who cooks a friend a particular meal discovers after doing this several times that it seems to make the other person somewhat friendlier.

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is where something pleasant happens after a behavior. As a result, the behavior increases.

You hand me the salt and I say thank you. Next time you might offer me the salt without being asked. I will still smile and thank you, so you keep offering me the salt.

Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement occurs when something that is not liked does not happen when a behavior occurs. As a result, the behavior increases.

You do not hand me the salt. I stare at you.
When you hand me the salt, I do not stare at you. Next time, you hand me the salt to avoid the nasty stare.

Fixed and variable ratio

The ratio of behavior to reinforcement can be varied. A fixed ratio can include every time (1:1) or the reinforcement may be applied every nth time the behavior appears (1:n). This makes it predictable and thus relatively comfortable.

A variable ratio means that the reinforcement is not used every time although it might be used. The uncertainty results in anxiety and behaviors such as 'jumping the gun' and gambling.

Fixed and variable interval

A reinforcement may vary based not on how often the behavior occurs but on time, such as salary payments. Fixed-period rewards tend to focus attention increasingly on time as the reward approaches. When the timing of the reward (or other reinforcement) cannot be predicted, then time may be ignored although general anxiety and risk-managing behavior may be created by the inability to predict when this will happen.


A child nags a busy mother until it gets attention. The mother frequently response angrily. For the child this is not the perfect response but it is better than nothing, so it continues to nag. The mother has thus reinforced the nagging behavior.

When food is shown, but not given to a dog it performs a range of tricks it has been taught by being given food. When it begs, it is given the food. When it is shown food in the future, it is more likely to try begging first.

A schoolteacher does not allow her pupils out to play until they are quiet (negative reinforcement).


Reinforcement often happens without specific intent. It may also act perversely, for example increasing a behavior that it is intended to decrease.

Random effects

When reinforcement is applied randomly, it can cause stress and confusion. If I am rewarded for delivering a product on time on one occasion, then later punished for producing on-time delivery that does not meet certain other goals, I may well become confused about priorities -- next time, I deliver slightly late and to better quality, but am still anxious about what will be said.


Whilst extrinsic motivation is effective at getting short-term behavioral change, it seldom leads to internal change, such as of beliefs or values. Intrinsic motivation is far more effective at causing deeper, self-sustaining change.

Repetition and rehearsal

Repetition, especially when it is predictable, leads to learning. This applies also to the self. When you practice something, you get better at it. You also get more comfortable with the behavior as you condition yourself.

Rehearsal can be done largely internally. As you visualize acting in certain ways, you learn -- often just as well as if you had acted physically.


Whilst reward and punishment are both forms of reinforcement, they are different in effect especially with humans who respond variably, particularly to punishment. Punishment is not negative reinforcement and is less effective. Punishment happens after a behavior that is not desirable. In negative reinforcement, discomfort is delivered when a desired behavior does not happen.


When no reinforcement is applied, then a behavior is likely to disappear ('extinction'). This is because, with no consequence, any purpose of the behavior is not satisfied. Thus a girl who does not want the attention of an amorous boy ignores all chat, cajoling and criticism.

So what?

In any situation, understand how others (and yourself) are programmed to react. Manage the cues and reinforcements to create desirable behavior.

To increase a behavior, reward it consistently. Beware of trying to decrease a behavior by punishment, as this may result in the increase of unwanted other behaviors.

See also

Operant Conditioning, Motivation, Motivation theories, Types of Operant Conditioning

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