With regard to operant conditioning, what are the differences between positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In order to understand this, we first have to understand the difference between reinforcement and punishment.  Reinforcement is meant to promote a given behavior and make it more likely to occur in the future.  By contrast, punishment is meant to make a given behavior less likely to recur in the future.  Thus, both attempt to change behavior, but one means to make a given behavior more likely while the other means to make it less likely.

Within each of these, there is a positive way to accomplish the goal and a negative way.  The positive way introduces something that was not there before.  The negative way takes away something that was there before.  Let us look at examples.

A positive punishment introduces an unpleasant stimulus after a given behavior.  If your cat scratches a chair and you spray it with water, it is a positive punishment because the spraying was not present before. 

A negative punishment takes something good away after a given behavior.  For example, if your child misbehaves and you take away their right to use the internet it is a negative punishment.  You are trying to prevent the misbehavior by taking away something that had been present.

Positive reinforcement introduces a pleasant stimulus after a given behavior.  If a dog performs a trick and you give it food, it is an example of positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement removes an unpleasant stimulus after a desired behavior is performed.  If you are a coach and you release your team from having to do their daily sprints because they performed well in practice, you are engaging in negative reinforcement.