In operant conditioning, reinforcement
refers to any process that strengthens a particular behavior—that is, increases the chances that the behavior will occur
again. There are two general categories of reinforcement, positive and negative. The experiments of Thorndike and Skinner
illustrate positive reinforcement, a method of strengthening behavior by following it with a pleasant stimulus. Positive reinforcement
is a powerful method for controlling the behavior of both animals and people. For people, positive reinforcers include basic
items such as food, drink, sex, and physical comfort. Other positive reinforcers include material possessions, money, friendship,
love, praise, attention, and success in one’s career.
Depending on the circumstances, positive
reinforcement can strengthen either desirable or undesirable behaviors. Children may work hard at home or at school because
of the praise they receive from parents and teachers for good performance. However, they may also disrupt a class, try dangerous
stunts, or start smoking because these behaviors lead to attention and approval from their peers. One of the most common reinforcers
of human behavior is money. Most adults spend many hours each week working at their jobs because of the paychecks they receive
in return. For certain individuals, money can also reinforce undesirable behaviors, such as burglary, selling illegal drugs,
and cheating on one’s taxes.
Negative reinforcement is a method of
strengthening a behavior by following it with the removal or omission of an unpleasant stimulus. There are two types of negative
reinforcement: escape and avoidance. In escape, performing a particular behavior leads to the removal of an unpleasant stimulus.
For example, if a person with a headache tries a new pain reliever and the headache quickly disappears, this person will probably
use the medication again the next time a headache occurs. In avoidance, people perform a behavior to avoid unpleasant consequences.
For example, drivers may take side streets to avoid congested intersections, citizens may pay their taxes to avoid fines and
penalties, and students may do their homework to avoid detention
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