In Applied Behavior Analysis, there are two types of reinforcement and punishment: positive and negative. It can be difficult to distinguish between the four of these. Therefore, the purpose of this blog is to explain the differences in order to help parents and professionals develop appropriate interventions to improve behavior.


  • Reinforcement is used to help increase the probability that a specific behavior will occur in the future by delivering or removing a stimulus immediately after a behavior.
  • Another way to put it is that reinforcement, if done correctly, results in a behavior occurring more frequently in the future.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement works by presenting a motivating/reinforcing stimulus to the person after the desired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future.

The following are some examples of positive reinforcement:

  • A mother gives her son praise (reinforcing stimulus) for doing homework (behavior).
  • The little boy receives $5.00 (reinforcing stimulus) for every A he earns on his report card (behavior).
  • A father gives his daughter candy (reinforcing stimulus) for cleaning up toys (behavior).

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement occurs when a certain stimulus (usually an aversive stimulus) is removed after a particular behavior is exhibited. The likelihood of the particular behavior occurring again in the future is increased because of removing/avoiding the negative consequence.

Negative reinforcement should not be thought of as a punishment procedure. With negative reinforcement, you are increasing a behavior, whereas with punishment, you are decreasing a behavior.

The following are some examples of negative reinforcement:

  • Bob does the dishes (behavior) in order to stop his mother’s nagging (aversive stimulus).
  • Natalie can get up from the dinner table (aversive stimulus) when she eats 2 bites of her broccoli (behavior).
  • Joe presses a button (behavior) that turns off a loud alarm (aversive stimulus)

When thinking about reinforcement, always remember that the end result is to try to increase the behavior, whereas punishment procedures are used to decrease behavior. For positive reinforcement, think of it as adding something positive in order to increase a response. For negative reinforcement, think of it as taking something negative away in order to increase a response.


  • When people hear that punishment procedures are being used, they typically think of an aversive or harmful consequence. This is not always the case as you can see below.
  • Punishment is a process by which a consequence immediately follows a behavior which decreases the future frequency of that behavior. Like reinforcement, a stimulus can be added (positive punishment) or removed (negative punishment).
  • There are two types of punishment: positive and negative, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. Below are some examples to help clear up the confusion.

What is Positive Punishment?

Positive punishment works by presenting an aversive consequence after an undesired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior less likely to happen in the future. The following are some examples of positive punishment:

  • A child picks his nose during class (behavior) and the teacher reprimands him (aversive stimulus) in front of his classmates.
  • A child touches a hot stove (behavior) and feels pain (aversive stimulus).
  • A person eats spoiled food (behavior) and gets a bad taste in his/her mouth (aversive stimulus).

What is Negative Punishment?

Negative punishment happens when a certain reinforcing stimulus is removed after a particular undesired behavior is exhibited, resulting in the behavior happening less often in the future.

The following are some examples of negative punishment:

  • A child kicks a peer (behavior), and is removed from his/her favorite activity (reinforcing stimulus removed)
  • A child yells out in class (behavior), loses a token for good behavior on his/her token board (reinforcing stimulus removed) that could have later be cashed in for a prize.
  • A child fights with her brother (behavior) and has her favorite toy taken away (reinforcing stimulus removed).

With punishment, always remember that the end result is to try to decrease the undesired behavior. Positive punishment involves adding an aversive consequence after an undesired behavior is emitted to decrease future responses. Negative punishment includes taking away a certain reinforcing item after the undesired behavior happens in order to decrease future responses.

It should be noted that research shows that positive consequences are more powerful than negative consequences for improving behavior. Therefore, it is always suggested that these interventions be tried prior to negative consequences. Do you have any experiences with reinforcement or punishment that you would like to share in the comment section below?

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Published On: February 5th, 2013 / Categories: Blog, Problem Behaviors /

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