What is Positive Reinforcement? (Including Examples Approved by Dr. Aubrey Daniels!)

Last updated on May 11th, 2017 at 01:42 pm

Image courtesy of Wikipedia 

*  I am delighted to announce that this article was written in collaboration with Dr Aubrey Daniels’, the author of “Bringing Out the Best in People” and all-round behaviour expert! Keep reading to discover the examples of positive reinforcement that we explained.

‘Positive Reinforcement’ is a term that is used frequently in the world of psychology and behaviour analysis. But what exactly is it and why should you know about it?

Positive reinforcement is a process which strengthens the type of behaviour that it is applied to. It is a consequence which follows the occurrence of behaviour, just as your actions could be followed by a smile from your friend. This consequence can increase the likelihood of you eliciting a similar response in the future, under the same circumstances. Explained more simply, positive reinforcement means: you do something, then you immediately get something you like and you will be more likely to engage in similar behaviour again in the future under a similar context.

Reinforcement is like the fuel you add to the (metaphorical!) fire to keep a behaviour going.

(If you are hungry for a more technical textbook definition of positive reinforcement, then click here.)

Knowing how to recognise when positive reinforcement is occurring in your life can give you a real insight into what is influencing your own behaviour. Learning about reinforcement has always satiated the curiosity in me. Who doesn’t love to find out what makes people tick? Reinforcement is also an invaluable tool within any plans that you might have to change your habits for the better.

Why do we need a list of examples of positive reinforcement? It all sounds pretty simple to me!

Behaviour is a tricky subject to grasp. And reinforcement can be just as slippery to understand. Just when you think that you have gotten your head around the basic principles of it, an example crops up that can make you question whether you truly understand how reinforcement works at all!

A few years ago, when I first learned about reinforcement and performed a thorough Google search on the topic, the results surprised me. I found that most websites had dedicated the majority of their examples to explaining how children learn. For parents, this must be a really useful and informative tool. But for a twenty-something student who just wanted to learn a little more about how behaviour worked, it wasn’t quite as relatable to read.

So I decided to create my own personal list, detailing examples of what positive reinforcement can look like. All of the items on this list are positive reinforcers which have occurred at least some point in my life so far!

And I am excited to say that all of the examples on this list have been approved by Dr Aubdrey Daniels’! 

A Quick Intro to the List

The easiest way to detangle behaviour is to separate it into the behavioural ABC’s, so this is the format that I have used for my examples.

You’re welcome to skip straight on to the examples because you can understand about positive reinforcement without knowing the structure behind it. But if you want to know a little more, what are the ABC’s of behaviour?

What you really need to know is that…..
A) = What was occurring before the behaviour? (What did you want?)
B) = Is for the Behaviour (What did you do or say?)
C) = What happened immediately after the behaviour? (i.e.You got what you wanted)

And if you are interested in learning even more about the ABC’s? Check out this website for a more in-depth explanation.

Behaviour Babble’s List of Positive Reinforcement Examples

Example 1: Google is the Answer

A: You get the Google search bar to pop up
B: Type “cat vs cucumber” into Google
C: You immediately find the link that you were looking for and watch the video

In the future, Beth’s behaviour of using Google as a search engine increased (or maintained) when it was immediately followed by locating whatever it was that she was searching for, in this case, a funny video. =Positive reinforcement has occured 

Funny Youtube videos are a positive reinforcer.  (Though Beth also finds that gaining an answer to one of her many questions is also positively reinforcing to her using Google. I really have a lot to thank Google for!).

Example 2: Let there be Light

A: You open your front door and the house is dark. You can’t see where to put your bag.
B: Flick the light switch
C: The light turns on (Yay I can see stuff now!)

In the future, the number of times that the light switch was flicked on maintained when this behaviour was immediately followed by the lights flashing on. = Positive reinforcement

Light (and being able to see where in the hallway that you are throwing your bags!) is a positive reinforcer.

Example 3: Online Shopping

A: You find your favourite shopping website
B: Scrolling through the website
C: Find an interesting item/holiday/gift!

The frequency of Beth’s online shopping behaviour (scrolling!) increased over time when it was followed by immediately finding the “perfect item” =Positive reinforcement

Spotting the gift that you have been searching for is a positive reinforcer.

Example 4: Quirky Comments

A: Boyfriend talks about boats…..
B: Me:”Wouldn’t it be great to live on a boat”
C: BF:”You’re so weird!”   *both smile at each other
=Positive reinforcement
—-In the future, Beth’s behaviour of making ‘funny’ comments increased when they were immediately followed by smiles and jokes from her boyfriend. =Positive Reinforcement

Receiving jokes and smiles from the other half are a positive reinforcer.

Hint: Avoiding the “THIS is a reinforcer for everyone” Trap
Notice that in this example the positive reinforcer wasn’t your typical “That’s a great idea!”, “Thank’s for your help” or “Amazing!”. But it still had the effect of a reinforcer (making the behaviour more likely to occur again in the future). The lesson here? Sometimes reinforcers can be quite unexpected!

Example 7:  Slang Questions 

A: You read a Facebook post containing the acronym ‘FOMO’. You cannot for the life of you remember what it means.
B: Asks friend “What is ‘FOMO’ again”?”
C: Friend laughs and responds “Fear of missing out, obviously!.”

The frequency of Beth’s question asking behaviour increased over time when it was followed by immediately by getting the right answer from a good friend. = Positive reinforcement

Social interaction and/or finding out the answer to a question is a positive reinforcer.

Hint: The ‘positive reinforcement’ effect in this example occurred because of the tone and sense of humour shared between me and my friend. If I received the same response, but a more blunt answer from a stranger, then this could have had a punishing effect on my question asking behaviour!

Example 8: The “Well-Trained” Boyfriend

A: Aiden notices that the rubbish bin is full
B: Aiden takes out the rubbish
C: Beth says”Thanks for sorting that”

Aiden’s behaviour of taking out the trash increased in frequency when it was immediately followed by praise from his girlfriend =Positive reinforcement 

Receiving kind words from his other half were a positive reinforcer.

Example 9: The Chocolate Tantrum

A: Child asks for chocolate, but their parent says “No”
B: Child cries for the chocolate
C: Parent picks up and buys the chocolate (and their child stops crying).

The little one’s crying behaviour will be more likely to occur again on another supermarket trip, when their crying is followed immediately by them getting the sweet treat that they had previously been denied = Positive reinforcement

Getting a sugary treat acts as a positive reinforcer.

Hint: Be Aware, Positive Reinforcement has a ‘Dark Side’

Positive reinforcement ALWAYS increases ANY behaviour that it follows, making it more likely to reoccur again in the future. Crying, whining or an angry comment can all be positively reinforced, in just the same way that smiling can be. Confusing, no? Especially when you consider the act of “positively reinforcing” an aggressive behaviour doesn’t sound very “positive” at all! For the moment, it is best to just accept the terminology, in all of its imperfect glory (or read up more about it here).

It is worth bearing in mind that a wide spectrum of behaviours can be positively reinforced, from eating disorders and gambling addiction to playing nicely and helping others in need.



Don’t forget about the Context

A behaviour that has been positively reinforced is one that is more likely to occur, under similar conditions or context. For the sake of brevity, I haven’t emphasised this principle quite as much in my examples. But this rule still applies!  Within the “light switch” example, light is only going to be a positive reinforcer (for the behaviour of flicking on the light switch) if the house is in darkness.  You’re only motivated to see light if you don’t have light currently and you need it to see what you are doing (i.e. to find something in the hallway). Makes sense right?

So if you just need to pass through your hallway to grab the car keys that you left in the living room, then you might not be motivated to turn the hallway light on. Thus in that situation, adding light into the hallway would not necessarily be a positive reinforcer. Context is key! If you’re not too sure what the context is, ask yourself what happened right before the specific behaviour occurred?

Keeping Things Simple

I deliberately kept the language that I used quite similar across these examples. I thought that this would make it easier to understand the basic concept. The words “positive reinforcement” can be confusing enough to learn alone without throwing in long and complex examples into the mix!


The bit at the end….

I really hope that you found these examples useful and that they helped to make sense of positive reinforcement in context to your life.

I will do my best to keep adding more examples to this list as I go. The more we try to understand how positive reinforcement works, the more we can use it to enhance our everyday lives!

Thank you to Dr. Aubdrey Daniels’ for agreeing to collaborate with me on this blog post, you helped ideas to become a reality.

But do you still want to know even more about reinforcement? Then take a look at my Ultimate Guide here

Have you thought of a great example of positive reinforcement? Then please do share it in the comments section below, or on my Facebook page.

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