The Power Of Positive Reinforcement: How To Encourage Good Behavior In Others

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated March 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention substance use-related topics that could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance use, contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). Support is available 24/7. Please see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

A potent way for modifying behavior and encouraging progress is positive reinforcement, which involves providing a reward or benefit in response to a desired behavior to increase the likelihood that the behavior might be repeated in the future. Whether you are looking to improve your relationships, work performance, or overall well-being, understanding the principles of positive reinforcement could be incredibly valuable. 

To do this, it may be a good idea to explore the science behind positive reinforcement, learn strategies for using it daily, and the potential impact on mental health.

Start incorporating positive reinforcement into your daily life

The science behind positive reinforcement

The science behind positive reinforcement relies on the idea that behavior might be shaped by the consequences that follow it. When a behavior can be followed by a positive result, such as a reward or praise, it is more likely to be repeated in the future.

On the other hand, when a behavior might be followed by a negative consequence, such as punishment or removal of a privilege, it is less likely to be repeated.

One of the likely differences between positive reinforcement and other forms of reinforcement might be the type of consequence that it could provide.

  • Positive reinforcement involves adding something positive, such as a treat or a compliment, in response to a desired behavior.
  • Punishment involves taking something away, such as a privilege to a favorite activity, in response to undesired behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement is when you take something away that might be unliked in response to a desired behavior to hope that the same outcome with be repeated.

Strategies for using positive reinforcement in daily life

Positive reinforcement might be used in various settings to shape behavior and promote positive change. Here are a few examples of how it might be applied in different areas of daily life.

  • At home: Parents could use positive reinforcement to encourage their children to do chores, complete homework, or practice good manners. For example, a child who consistently makes their bed in the morning could earn a small reward, such as extra screen time or a special treat.
  • In the workplace: Employers might use positive reinforcement to increase productivity and improve employee morale. For example, employees who consistently meet or exceed their sales targets could be rewarded with a bonus or promotion.
  • In relationships: Partners might use positive reinforcement to strengthen their bond and improve communication. For example, a partner who listens actively during conversations could be rewarded with a special date night or a thoughtful gesture.

To effectively use positive reinforcement, it's ideal to identify and reward the desired behavior consistently and appropriately. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

  • Be specific: Instead of praising a child for "being good," praise them for particular behaviors, such as "I appreciate how well you cleaned your room today."
  • Be timely: Reward the desired behavior as soon as possible after it occurs so the connection between the behavior and the reward could be straightforward.
  • Be proportional: The reward should be proportional to the behavior. A small behavior should be rewarded with a small reward, and a significant behavior should be rewarded with a big reward.
  • Be flexible: Try to be open to changing the rewards as needed. Not all rewards have the ability to work for all people, so it's ideal to be flexible and willing to try new things.

As with any strategy, there could be challenges when using positive reinforcement.

Some common challenges might include the following.

  • Difficulty identifying the desired behavior: It could be challenging to isolate the behavior that should be rewarded.
  • Difficulty providing consistent and appropriate rewards: It could also be difficult to identify and offer suitable rewards to the desired behavior consistently.
  • Difficulty maintaining motivation: People might become used to the rewards and no longer find them motivating.

Challenges to using positive reinforcement in everyday life

To overcome these challenges, try to stay mindful of the desired behavior, be consistent and appropriate with the rewards, and keep the rewards varied to maintain motivation. Trying to seek guidance or support from a therapist or counselor could help you learn how to effectively use positive reinforcement in different contexts.


The impact of positive reinforcement on mental health

Positive reinforcement could positively impact mental health and well-being by promoting positive behavior change and increasing feelings of self-worth and self-efficacy. When individuals are rewarded for positive behaviors, they are more likely to repeat those behaviors in the future, which might lead to improved relationships, increased productivity, and better overall well-being. Additionally, receiving rewards and praise might boost self-esteem and confidence, making individuals feel more capable of achieving their goals. It also can be used as an effective therapeutic tool in the treatment of various mental health conditions, including depression and anxiety.

Positive reinforcement might be used to reinforce positive changes in thought and behavior, making it more likely that individuals should continue to engage in these positive behaviors in the future. For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) could help individuals learn to identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors that contribute to their mental health challenges. Positive reinforcement could also enable individuals with PTSD, substance use, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) to overcome mental health challenges. By providing rewards for positive behaviors such as adherence to treatment, decreasing symptoms, and increasing healthy behaviors, positive reinforcement might help individuals feel more motivated and empowered to make positive changes in their lives.

Positive reinforcement can improve mental health and well-being by promoting positive behavior change and increasing self-esteem and self-efficacy. Additionally, it could be an effective therapeutic tool in treating various mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance use, and OCD. It might help individuals to overcome their mental health challenges by providing rewards for positive behaviors such as adherence to treatment, decreasing symptoms, and increasing healthy behaviors.

Benefits of online therapy

Online therapy can help you understand what positive reinforcement might be able to do for you and the people around you. It could also help you gain more insight into how to use positive reinforcement more effectively and how to create a rewarding system that works for your unique needs. 

Additionally, it might offer an environment where you could explore different strategies that work in various contexts and situations. Online therapy provides a safe environment to discuss your mental health journey with an experienced professional. This could be especially beneficial for those who need support but don't have the resources for in-person therapy.

Effectiveness of online therapy

There are several ways in terms of how online therapy might help individuals learn how to conduct positive reinforcement. For example, an online therapist might be able to provide individuals with education and guidance on the principles of positive reinforcement and how to apply them in daily life. An online therapist might provide support and feedback as individuals work to identify and reward positive behaviors. 

Furthermore, online therapy might give a wide range of resources, worksheets, and tools that could assist individuals in practicing positive reinforcement and being consistent. A study published in the Journal of Applied Behavior explores the use of positive reinforcement as a therapeutic tool in mental health treatment and its effectiveness in online therapy. It also outlines the potential benefits that online therapy might provide by helping individuals learn how to apply positive reinforcement more effectively and create reward systems. This study supports the idea that online therapy might be an effective way for individuals to learn and practice positive reinforcement and to improve their mental health and well-being.

Positive reinforcement could be an effective therapeutic way to treat various mental health conditions, providing rewards that help individuals overcome challenges and improve their well-being.

Getty/Vadym Pastukh
Start incorporating positive reinforcement into your daily life


Positive reinforcement might be a powerful tool that might be used to encourage progress and change behavior. Understanding the science behind positive reinforcement and learning strategies for using it daily might improve your relationships, work performance, and overall well-being. If you struggle to incorporate positive reinforcement into your life, online therapy may be a good option for you; it might help you learn and practice positive reinforcement. It also provides resources, guidance from an experienced professional, and the opportunity to explore different strategies that could work for an individual's unique needs.
Learn to strengthen your mental health
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitution for diagnosis, treatment, or informed professional advice. You should not take any action or avoid taking any action without consulting with a qualified mental health professional. For more information, please read our terms of use.
Get the support you need from one of our therapistsGet started