Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

negative reinforcement vs punishment

Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

The difference between negative reinforcement and punishment is often confused. When looking at reinforcement versus punishment, it’s important to understand the stimulus change and the effect on the behavior. In behavior analysis, positive and negative are used to describe the stimulus change and not the effect.

In other words, positive means that something is being added to the environment or situation, and negative means that something is being removed from the environment or situation. Reinforcement is meant to increase a behavior, whereas punishment is meant to decrease or stop a behavior from reoccurring.

Negative reinforcement can be defined as taking something away (that is usually aversive) after a behavior in order to increase a response. In other words, negative reinforcement increases behaviors by removing or avoiding a stimulus. Punishment can be defined as adding or removing something after a behavior, in order to decrease or stop that response.

Everyday examples of negative reinforcement:

  1. Hitting the snooze button (behavior) to stop the alarm (stimulus).
  2. Drying your hands (behavior) after washing them to remove the water (stimulus).
  3. Putting on oven mitts (behavior) before taking the pan out of the oven to avoid getting burned (stimulus).
  4. Wearing sunscreen (behavior) to avoid getting sunburn (stimulus).

Everyday examples of punishment:

  1. Speeding while driving (behavior) and getting a ticket (punishment) – the person is less likely to speed.
  2. Touching a hot stove (behavior) and getting burned (punishment) – the person is less likely to touch the hot stove.


  • When using punishment, be sure to pair it with reinforcement to encourage desirable behaviors and replace the punished behaviors.
  • Punishment does not encourage replacement behaviors, nor does it teach the child what do to
  • Less intrusive procedures should be ruled ineffective before using punishment procedures

When deciding whether to use punishment or negative reinforcement, think about which desired change in behavior is most important for the child. Remember: reinforcement means to increase. Negative reinforcement encourages behavior, and punishment discourages behavior.


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