Encyclopedia of Animal Cognition and Behavior

Living Edition
| Editors: Jennifer Vonk, Todd Shackelford

Positive Reinforcement

  • Roberto BarataEmail author
Living reference work entry

Later version available View entry history

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-47829-6_761-1



Positive reinforcement is an operant procedure in which the addition of a stimulus increases an aspect of a particular behavior. “A positive reinforcer is everything that increases the frequency, intensity or duration of a certain behavior when presented either simultaneously or immediately after that behavior takes place.” (Abrantes 2013, p. 12).


Positive reinforcement it is a widely accepted and used term especially in animal training, because of the pleasant connotations it creates. Skinner’s behavioral model analysis shows more efficiency of using several reinforcement models in behavior modification of humans and nohumans species (Skinner, 1966, 1969, 1987).

‘Positive’ does not describe the nature of the consequence; it indicates the addition of a stimulus. ‘Reinforcement’ indicates a strengthening of an aspect of the behavior.

In operant conditioning, reinforcers (and punishers) must have the right quality and intensity to work. Abrantes (2013) mentions their ‘window of opportunity.’ Reinforcers depend on some state of deprivation. For example, food may work as a reinforcer if the individual is hungry and water if it is thirsty. Therefore, the quality of the reinforcer is essential for it to function as envisaged. The intensity of the reinforcer is also fundamental. Too low an intensity does not affect the behavior, and a too high one creates another behavior.

Positive Reinforcement Versus Rewards

Positive reinforcement is sometimes called rewarding or reward learning. Skinner has rejected this term: “The strengthening effect is missed when reinforcers are called rewards, […] people are rewarded, but behavior is reinforced” (1987, p. 19).

Although we find the term “reward learning” in the learning, biology and neuroscience literature, the events labeled as rewards often fail to increase or strengthen the following behavior. A stimulus may reinforce a particular behavior in one specific situation but not in another (Sy et al. 2010); “[…] a reinforcer can by definition do nothing but increase an aspect of a behavior (Abrantes 2013, p. 20).

Positive Reinforcement Versus Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement strengths a behavior by the removal of a stimulus or a decrease in its intensity.

Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the frequency, intensity or duration of a behavior. The difference is that while positive reinforcement adds, negative reinforcement removes something.

Identifying consequences that strengthen behaviors is a useful strategy for behavior modification but is not always easy to identify whether it is a positive or a negative reinforcer that is working in a particular situation. Iwata (1987, 2006) gives the example of a person in a cold room who turns up the heat. Is the reinforcer an increase (positive reinforcer) or a decrease (negative reinforcer) in the temperature?

Practical Applications of Positive Reinforcement

Behavior modification depends on several conditions. Both reinforcers and punishers (‘inhibitors’ according to Abrantes, 2–13, p. 16) are always subject to the individual, the behavior and the occasion.

Some learning procedures to change or strengthen behaviors, e.g., shaping, chaining and differential reinforcement apply positive reinforcers.

Behavioral therapies apply these techniques to both human and non-human behavior, and to behavior management in various environments and situations.

Reinforcement and Motivation

Mcfarland (2006), defines motivation as “[…] A reversible aspect of the animal’s state that plays a causal role in behaviour. Changes in behaviour in an unchanging environment may be due to irreversible processes such as learning, maturation, or injury, or reversible motivational processes. […] An animal’s motivational state changes continually as a result of both external and internal changes. […] The dominant motivational tendency is the one that controls the ongoing behaviour. The dominant tendency inhibits the tendencies for other aspects of behaviour.”

Hull (1952) believes that humans and nonhumans act because of motivational states called drives, caused by a period of deprivation (such as food). His drive-reduction theory attributes the effectiveness of a reinforcer to the reduction of the drive. It works mainly with primary reinforcers because they alter a physiological state of the individual.

Other motivation theories appear to confirm the efficiency of working with motivational processes though under the constraint of conditions and correct application.



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ethology Institute, IntCambridgeUK

Section editors and affiliations

  • Kenneth Leising
    • 1
  1. 1.Texas Christian UniversityForth WorthUSA