Positive versus negative reinforcement is a disputed conflict for anyone learning to do a new task. Determining which reinforcement most motivates a new learner can be a personal choice based on past experiences, unique brain function or both. However, for an educator or coach, teaching young students to give their best effort is a quick choice that cannot be based on each individual. Understanding the brain and how it works as well as the relationship preferences for younger students are critical for motivating a learner. Positive and negative reinforcement are both part of an idea called operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a type of learning where behavior is controlled by consequences (yourdictionary.com). It deals with operants – intentional actions that have an effect on the surrounding environment. It has many sub-categories including positive or negative reinforcement and positive or negative punishment. B.F. Skinner (1938) is commonly known in the psychology field, as the father of operant conditioning even though what he did was based on Thorndike’s (1905) law of effect. Skinner made up the term operant conditioning. It basically means changing of behavior with the use of reinforcement given after the wanted response. He also identified three types of responses that follow a behavior; neutral operants, reinforcers, and punishers. Neutral operants are like the controls in an experiment. They don’t either increase or decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated again. Reinforcers are the responses from the environment that increase the chance of the behavior being repeated that can be either positive or negative (simplypsychology.org). Finally, punishers. These decrease the chance of a behavior being repeated. According to Thorndike (1874 – 1949) “Any behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and any behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be stopped.”. Many experiments have been performed on the subject of operant conditioning, but the most famous are Thorndike’s puzzle box (1898; Simply Psychology) and Skinner’s Box (1948; S.P) . Most of Thorndike’s research was done using cats. He put a cat in a puzzle box, dangled a piece of fish outside, encouraging the cat to escape. When the cat pulls a lever, the door swings open, rewarding the cat with the fish. Once the cats figured the box out, the amount of escape time would get smaller and smaller. Skinner’s experiment was very similar. He built a box with tubes, a slot for food to come out and a lever. Unlike Thorndike, he used very hungry rats. The rat would be in the same situation as the cats, but with a lever and food dispenser. When they cycled around, they would do the same thing as the last rotation, but in the approximate area of the dispenser. Similar to the cats, they would figure it out faster and faster, to the point that they would get set down in the box, and make a beeline for the lever. Thorndike and Skinner are known as the fathers of operant conditioning, from creating the idea, to reinforcing the common thought on the subject. They are true psychological leaders of the early era. Positive reinforcement falls into the category of operant conditioning. According to Saul McLeod (2015) positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. An example: If a teacher gives you $5 each time you get an ‘A’ on your test (i.e a reward) you will be more likely to study in the future. According to Kendra Cherry (Updated October 9, 2017), one of the easiest ways to remember positive is to think of it as something added. Positive reinforcement can be natural. If a person holds a door open for another, and they get a thank you, that person will be more likely to repeat the behavior in the future-positive reinforcement. Although positive reinforcement is usually a good thing, that is not always the case. If a child misbehaves and the parent gives them attention or even a toy, the child is more likely to repeat the behavior. Positive reinforcement can work negatively. The objects that reinforce the behavior are called reinforcers (K. Cherry). There are different types of these reinforcers that may work for some people better than others. For example, a shiny gold or silver star will work for a second or third grader, but a high schooler will not be pleased with one on their paper. According to Kendra Cherry, there are four kinds of reinforcers; natural, token, tangible, and social. The earlier example with holding the door is a natural kind of reinforcement. A token reinforcer is a kind of “points” that you get for completing a task that can later be turned in for a tangible reward. This kind of reinforcement (tangible) is a toy or treat that someone can be rewarded with after doing a good job on a task. The last reinforcer is social. It is an expression of happiness on a job well done (i.e. “Good job”). While positive reinforcement is very helpful in most situations, there is a certain window that the reinforcer can be done in that will make an impression. In Kendra Cherry’s words, “The shorter the amount of time between a behavior and presenting positive reinforcement, the stronger the connection will be.” She also says “If a long period elapses between the behavior and the reinforcement, the weaker the connection will be.” Positive reinforcement can be a good psychological tool to use when you are trying to reinforce a specific behavior.


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