Reinforcement theory and why it is important


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Reinforcement is a term used in behavioral analysis and in a specific kind of intentional behavior change known as operant conditioning. It is a process of increasing the incidence of a (measurable) desirable behavior. The psychologist B. F. Skinner is the proponent of the concept of reinforcement. This is one of the oldest and most read theory of motivation.

The Reinforcement Theory of Motivation was proposed by Burrhus Frederic Skinner and his associates. This theory posits that behavior is the function of its consequences, which means an individual develops a behavior after performing certain actions.

There are four broad types of reinforcement: positive, negative, punishment, and extinction.

Positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. The removal of an unpleasant reinforcer can also strengthen behavior. This is known as negative reinforcement

Punishment is defined as the opposite of reinforcement since it is designed to weaken or eliminate a response rather than increase it. It is an aversive event that decreases the behavior that it follows.

Extinction is when the individual forgets a particular behavior and connection between the stimulus and the outcome expected.

Well that sounds very academic! How does this affect us in day to day life? Well reinforcement theory, in essence, is the carrot and stick method we follow, put very crudely. Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach operant conditioning.

As a child you probably tried out a number of behaviors and learned from their consequences. Let’s see some real-life cases. A mother gives her son praise (reinforcing stimulus) for doing homework (behavior). The little boy receives chocolate (reinforcing stimulus) for every A he earns on his report card (behavior). This are examples of positive reinforcements. These encourage the boy to study…motivates him using positive stimulus.

If, however, you were involved in disruptive behaviors and the main consequence was that you were caught, caned, suspended from school and your parents became involved you would most certainly have been punished, and you would consequently be much less likely to continue the behavior.

Skinner identified three types of responses, or operant, that can follow behavior:

  1. Neutral operants: responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.
  2. Reinforcers: Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative
  3. Punishers: Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Behaviorists discovered that different patterns (or schedules) of reinforcement had different effects on the speed of learning and extinction. Reinforcements can be provided continuously or on some schedule (fixed interval) or on changing schedules (variable interval).

The efficacy varies from person to person and depends on what kind of motivation is the aim.