Negative reinforcement is a learning method that reinforces desired behaviors instead of punishing unwanted ones.

Humans learn in many different ways.

One of the main ways that we — along with other animal species — learn is through behavior reinforcement. We learn to behave in certain ways to seek a reward or to avoid (uncomfortable) consequences.

A classic example of an award for desired behaviors is a child studying hard for their exam, so they get to go out for an ice cream cone when they get an A+.

Positive reinforcement (rewards) and punishment are both well-known learning and behavior management strategies. But there’s another learning method that you may not have heard of: negative reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is a behavior management strategy that parents and teachers can use with children. It involves taking away something unpleasant in response to a stimulus.

With time, children learn that when they engage in “good” behaviors, then this unpleasant thing or experience goes away.

Both negative and positive reinforcement have been studied since the 1930s as part of a learning method called operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning was first described by a behavior scientist named B.F. Skinner. Skinner ran experiments on rats to see what consequences led the animals to change their behaviors.

Operant conditioning centers around the concept of behavior reinforcement and punishment. By reinforcing desired behaviors (either through negative or positive reinforcement), these behaviors become more likely to reoccur.

And by punishing undesired behaviors, those behaviors start to decrease in an effort to avoid the punishment.

Examples of negative reinforcement

Whether you know it or not, negative reinforcement has probably affected your behavior at some point in your life. For example:

  • You take prescribed medication so health symptoms go away.
  • You let the car tailgating you pass so they stop honking.
  • You get out of bed so your alarm stops ringing.

These are all ways in which negative reinforcement might unknowingly be changing your behavior. You adjust your behavior so that the unpleasant or negative “stimulus” (experience) goes away.

Is negative reinforcement good for kids?

Many educators and behavior therapists are very familiar with the general concept of positive and negative reinforcement. According to a 2019 meta-analysis, it can effectively manage children’s behavior.

Let’s look at some examples of how negative reinforcement could work with kids.

Imagine a child who doesn’t want to do his homework. Their parent scolds and nags them about it, which the child finds unpleasant.

When the child does their homework (the desired behavior), the parent stops nagging. The unpleasant experience goes away. The child learns that the unpleasant experience will go away if they do their homework.

Here are some other examples of negative reinforcement with children:

  • You take away your child’s chores for the weekend because they kept their room clean all week.
  • You remove your child’s grounding period because they worked on their homework.
  • Your child’s sibling stops crying loudly when they stop arguing with them.

When used well, negative reinforcement can be an excellent tool for behavior management. But when used incorrectly, it could unintentionally reinforce misbehavior that you don’t want your child to repeat.

For example, say your child doesn’t want to eat what you’ve cooked for them. The meal is aversive or unpleasant to them, and they begin to throw a tantrum. Overwhelmed, you take the offending trigger — the food — away.

This is negative reinforcement, but could actually reinforce an unwanted behavior: tantrums.

In this interaction, you removed the food so that you could avoid hearing your child tantrum (your child would become calm).

But your child learns that if they throw a tantrum, then the unpleasant experience (having to eat the food cooked for them) goes away.

Another type of operant conditioning is positive reinforcement.

Most parents, and other adults working with children, have heard about positive reinforcement strategies for behavior management. Examples of positive reinforcement are:

  • praise
  • rewards
  • sticker charts

When using positive reinforcement with kids, you give them some type of reward after every time they engage in positive behavior.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rewards such as hugs and praise can also increase your child’s self-esteem.

The idea is that this will reinforce this behavior and make it more likely that the child will repeat this behavior in the future.

Positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement have a lot more in common than you might think. They’re both ways to reinforce desired behavior through operant conditioning.

The main difference between them is that a good or pleasant thing (a reward) is added in response to a stimulus (desired behavior) in positive reinforcement.

For negative reinforcement, an unpleasant thing is subtracted in response to the desired behavior.

They both have the same goal: to reinforce desired behavior.

Here are some examples:

Positive reinforcement Negative reinforcement
You take your child out for an ice cream cone because they were kind to their sibling.You remove the expectation that your child will take their younger sibling along to an event because they were kind to their sibling.
Your boss praises you for having the highest sales of the month.Your boss finally stops berating you because you had the highest sales of the month.

Some people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment, but these two things are more opposite than similar.

Negative reinforcement has more in common with positive reinforcement than it does with punishment.

The main difference between the two is that punishment is about discouraging unwanted behavior. Both types of reinforcement (both positive and negative) are about reinforcing and encouraging wanted behaviors.

To illustrate the differences between punishment and negative reinforcement, take a look at the following examples.

PunishmentNegative reinforcement
You ground your child when they break curfew. You lift their grounding and allow your child to go out when they complete their chores without being asked.
You get fired because of your substance misuse.You get off probation because you were able to recover from substance misuse.
You spank your child because they misbehaved and didn’t apologize.You stop spanking your child because they apologized.

The differences are sometimes subtle, but they’re important to be aware of.

Important note

Spanking, or any kind of corporal punishment, has been found by 2021 research to raise the risk of problems like mental health disorders, physical health conditions, and defiant behaviors, such as aggression toward others. It’s not an effective parenting strategy.

Negative reinforcement involves reinforcing desired behaviors instead of punishing unwanted ones.

Negative reinforcement is a type of learning and behavior modification method that can work well when used in the right way and in the right circumstances.

It may unintentionally reinforce undesired behaviors if used incorrectly or without knowledge of underlying behavior modification theory.