The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Use with care

Abstract

It is customary in behavior analysis to distinguish between positive and negative reinforcement in terms of whether the reinforcing event involves onset or offset of a stimulus. In a previous article (Baron & Galizio, 2005), we concluded that a distinction of these terms is not only ambiguous but has little if any functional significance. Here, we respond to commentaries by a group of distinguished behavior analysts about the issues we raised. Although several of the commentators argued for preservation of the distinction, we remain unconvinced that its benefits outweigh its weaknesses. Because this distinction is so deeply embedded in the language of behavior analysis, we hardly expect that it will be abandoned. However, we hope that the terms positive and negative reinforcement will be used with circumspection and with full knowledge of the confusion they can engender.

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Correspondence to Alan Baron or Mark Galizio.

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Baron, A., Galizio, M. The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Use with care. BEHAV ANALYST 29, 141–151 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392127

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Key word

  • classification of reinforcers
  • positive reinforcement
  • negative reinforcement
  • stimulus onset
  • stimulus offset