Reinforcement is a term used in behavioural analysis and in a specific kind of intentional behaviour change known as operant conditioning. It is a process of increasing the incidence of a (measurable) desirable behaviour. The psychologist B. F. Skinner is the proponent of the concept of reinforcement. This is one of the oldest and most-read theories of motivation.
The Reinforcement Theory of Motivation was proposed by Burrhus Frederic Skinner and his associates. This theory posits that behaviour is the function of its consequences, which means an individual develops a behaviour after performing certain actions.
There are four broad types of reinforcement: positive, negative, punishment, and extinction.
Positive reinforcement strengthens a behaviour by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. The removal of an unpleasant reinforcer can also strengthen behaviour. 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 behaviour that it follows.
Extinction is when the individual forgets a particular behaviour 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 behaviour. Skinner believed that the best way to understand behaviour 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 behaviours and learned from their consequences. Let’s see some real-life cases. A mother gives her son praise (reinforcing stimulus) for doing homework (behaviour). The little boy receives chocolate (reinforcing stimulus) for every A he earns on his report card (behaviour). This is examples of positive reinforcements. These encourage the boy to study…motivates him using positive stimulus.
If, however, you were involved in disruptive behaviours 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 behaviour.
Skinner identified three types of responses, or operant, that can follow behaviour:
- Neutral operants: responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behaviour being repeated.
- Reinforcers: Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behaviour being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative
- Punishers: Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated. Punishment weakens behaviour.
Schedules of Reinforcement
Behaviourists 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.