What is Reinforcement? Your ultimate guide!

Last updated on April 16th, 2020 at 11:37 am

You’ll hear the term “reinforcement” used a lot in this blog and with good reason too. It’s one of the most interesting and important concepts to come out of behaviour analysis (the science of understanding behaviour). And its something that’s shaping how you behave on a daily basis! But myths and common misconceptions have lead to a lot of confusion as to what reinforcement actually is. So this is going to be my guide to explaining what reinforcement means, what the two types of reinforcement are and what the differences between them is. Happy reading!


Let’s jump straight into the definition.


Reinforcement: You do something, then a change immediately occurs in your environment. It is this change which makes you more likely to respond in the same way again, under similar circumstances.

Sounding a little too abstract to understand? Bear with me! Here are some examples to help make some sense of it.

Reinforcement is.……when you see a Facebook notification icon, click onto Facebook and you immediately see a cool story/funny video/ get a ‘like’ on a picture that you’ve posted. You then notice that over the next few days your going on Facebook more often then you used to, when the notification icon comes up.

Reinforcement is…....when you notice the pile of dirty dishes in the sink. You hate washing up so you, nag your partner to do their fair share of the washing up and they reluctantly do as their told (!). Then you notice yourself starting to nag them more often then you used to, when you see the washing up pile growing again.

Reinforcement is……...when pass Costa during your trip to the high street, you treat yourself to a nice cup of Costa coffee and you immediately feel good after drinking it. Then you notice yourself going to Costa more often over the next few weeks then you did previously, when you pass the store on your way to work.

Making more sense? Okay good.

But you’ve only learned part of the puzzle. Read on to find out what two types of “changes in your environment” can occur (Or in plain English, I’ll explain what types of reinforcement there are)


What are the two types of reinforcement and what’s the difference between them?

Now this is where things can get confusing, but stick with me!!

The two types of reinforcement are: Positive and Negative

BOTH INCREASE the likelihood of you doing the same response in the future. (i.e. They are both reinforcers!!)

Positive reinforers add/present something that you like into your environment.

Negative reinforcers remove/stop something you don’t like from happening

Tip: Don’t think in terms of Positive= Good and Negative= Bad
Instead think of them as mathematical terms. POSITIVE= ADDING  NEGATIVE=TAKING AWAY

Going back to the three previous examples, buying a Costa coffee and checking Facebook more often are examples of positive reinforcement. And nagging your partner more often to do the washing up that you hate, or anything involving procrastination, is an example of negative reinforcement.

I hope this guide has made it more clear as to what reinforcement actually is. And if your still not quite sure then check out my quick guide to reinforcement below.

Reinforcement guide with guilt free spongebob

And for the keen beans among you…here’s some extra info about Reinforcement


  • Happens automatically. It’s not just a technique that you can use to get someone/ yourself to do something more often. It’s something that is happening naturally all of the time! (A bit like the laws of physics.)
  • Happens immediately after a behaviour. If the consequence happens a long time after the behaviour, then the chances are it’s not “truly” reinforcement. For example, going to work and then getting your paycheck at the end of the month isn’t technically reinforcement, because the delay in between the two is too great. This would instead be an example of rule-governed behaviour, but that’s something to talk about another time!
  • Only makes a behaviour occur more often under specific circumstances. You need a signal to tell you that your behaviour (which was reinforced in the past) is likely to be reinforced again if you do it now. For example, Molly sees the sweet shop, whines to her dad (the behaviour) and then gets to go buy sweets (the consequence). Now she will be more likely to ask her dad for sweets in the future, but only when she is near the sweet shop. The sweet shop has become a big flashing signal to Molly that reinforcement is available (if she whines to her dad)!
  • Depends on motivation. Something isn’t usually reinforcing to someone for ALL of the time.  If your not motivated to do something then your less likely to do it. This means that something which was a reinforcer to you at one time, might not be reinforcing to you in at a different instance. For example, if Molly sees the sweet shop, but has just eaten an ice-cream, then she’s going to be less likely to whine for sweets because the MOTIVATION for them isn’t there.Was this guide helpful? Does reinforcement make more sense to you? Let me know in the comments section!
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2 thoughts on “What is Reinforcement? Your ultimate guide!

  1. Great help, I struggle with negative reinforcement but the more I read about it helps.

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