What Is Reinforcement? Psychology, Definition, And Applications

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated March 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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Reinforcement psychology is the study of the effect of reinforcement techniques on behavior. Much of reinforcement psychology is based on the early research of B.F. Skinner, who is considered the father of operant conditioning research. Skinner's research was based on the Law of Effect, posited by Edward Thorndike. Skinner introduced the concept of reinforcement to this framework.

The principle of reinforcement suggests that when we follow behavior with pleasant consequences, that behavior is likely to be repeated. Additionally, behavior followed by unpleasant consequences may be less likely to be repeated.

The definition of reinforcement in psychology

The term "reinforcement" may refer to anything that increases the probability that a response will occur. The term "reinforcement psychology" refers to the effect of reinforcement on behavior. Reinforcement may increase or strengthen the response, whether positive or negative.

Reinforcement psychology can strengthen healing

When we praise a child for helping clean up their toys, they may continue helping with clean up in the future. When we offer a treat to a dog during training, they may repeat the behavior we're teaching them in the future.

Categories of reinforcement

There are two categories of reinforcement called primary reinforcement and secondary reinforcement.

Primary reinforcement 

Primary reinforcement occurs naturally and doesn't require the subject to learn anything new. The principle of primary reinforcement is sometimes referred to as unconditional reinforcement. Primary reinforcement assists the survival of people, plants, and animals. Natural cycles can provide food, sleep, water, and air. 

Our experiences and our genetics may play a factor in primary reinforcement. If we don't like a particular food, we might choose not to eat it. Similarly, people who become sunburned easily may choose to avoid long hours at the beach, bathing in the sun.

Secondary reinforcement 

Secondary reinforcement is also known as conditioned reinforcement. This reinforcement category involves using a reinforcer paired with another reinforcer. We may find an example of this in dog training, where a trainer uses a clicker in conjunction with a treat. 

The primary reinforcer is the dog treat. When the treat is used along with the clicker and praise, the clicker may eventually be able to serve as the primary reinforcer, and the treat can be taken away completely.

Types of reinforcement in psychology

Reinforcement can be positive or negative. When reinforcement is positive, the trainer adds something to increase or invoke a response. An example of this could be giving a child a sugary treat as a reward for toilet training.

Negative reinforcement can be removing something to increase the response. An example of this could be a child owing their parents money. If the parents ask the child to pay 90% of the money back by a specific date and the child complies, the parents may waive the remaining 10% of the balance. 

Positive and negative in this context don't necessarily pertain to "good and bad." As in mathematics, positive means adding something, and negative means taking something away. 

Factors that may influence response strength 

How and when someone reinforces a behavior are factors that may affect the overall strength of the response. The following items can measure the strength of a reinforcement response:

  • Persistence

  • Frequency

  • Duration

  • Accuracy of response after reinforcement stops

There are two other terms in reinforcement psychology: continuous reinforcement and partial reinforcement.

Continuous reinforcement 

Continuous reinforcement means you reinforce a certain behavior every time it happens. For example, if your dog always sits when you ask, you may choose to offer a treat every time. 

Partial reinforcement 

Partial reinforcement means that once the subject has acquired the behavior, the trainer may offer reinforcement part of the time and still get the same positive effect.

Skinner identified four main types of partial reinforcement, including:

  • Fixed-ratio schedules: Reinforcing a behavior after a specific number of responses have occurred.

  • Fixed-interval schedules: Reinforcing a behavior after a specific period has elapsed.

  • Variable-ratio schedules: Reinforcing the behavior after an unpredictable number of responses.

  • Variable-interval schedules: Reinforcing the behavior after an unpredictable period has elapsed.

In the same example above, partial reinforcement might mean that after 15 times of your dog sitting, you only provide a treat for every five occurrences instead of every time. 


Applications for reinforcement

The basic principles in reinforcement psychology are often used in many facets of life, including education, clinical, and community settings. 

Application in the educational setting

One effect of the development of reinforcement psychology was the development of positive behavioral supports and interventions (PBIS) to modify student behavior at school and in the classrooms.

PBIS is a program that uses universal behavioral interventions recognized worldwide to prevent disruptive behaviors. PBIS may be used at the schoolwide, classroom, and individual student levels. PBIS may be most successful when schools employ the interventions at all three levels.

At the schoolwide level, a team of researchers did a three-year study of over 438,500 students in the Chicago Public School system between 2001-2004. 

The study involved promoting four schoolwide expectations, which were:

  • Be respectful

  • Be responsible

  • Be academically engaged

  • Be caring

The study showed vast reductions in office discipline referrals and suspensions and increases in math test scores. In other studies, schools report that their students showed drastically improved social skills. 

Schools were able to decrease the amount of time and resources they needed to address behavioral issues. Many studies showed that PBIS resulted in higher test scores and academic achievement.

Application in the clinical setting

Reinforcement psychology has proven helpful in a variety of clinical settings. One of the first applications of reinforcement techniques pertains to children who live with severe social anxiety. A 2008 study conducted by a team of researchers involved a 12-year-old boy by the name of Luke. Luke was selectively mute at school. 

Researchers believe that selective mutism is often a symptom of social anxiety. The clinicians studied the boy as teachers used reinforcement techniques to increase Luke's verbalization. 

They used either a few prompts or no prompts in the regular classroom setting to achieve the goal of helping him lessen his anxiety enough that he could speak. The experiment found that contingent positive reinforcement is the most functional therapy design for students who live with selective mutism.

Application in treating substance use concerns 

Reinforcement techniques are also commonly used to treat substance abuse. Substance use can reinforce behavior because it creates pleasant sensations while reducing anxiety, increasing someone's ability to be social, feel energized, or sleep more.  

However, the reinforcement of substance use can be an unhealthy reinforcer that may cause dependence or addiction. Substance abuse counselors may use positive and negative reinforcements to encourage healthy behavior and help clients substitute new habits for unhealthy ones.

Positive reinforcement in substance abuse therapy 

Positive reinforcements are often used in substance abuse treatment to relieve the client of the stressful situations causing them to seek an escape. Positive reinforcements may include involving one's family in treatment to have social connections during treatment. 

Other positive reinforcements may be allowing the client to move up to higher levels in the program that offer more fun and engaging activities such as yoga, rock climbing, outdoor meditation, ropes courses, and more. 

Negative reinforcement in substance abuse therapy 

Negative reinforcement may also be successful in substance abuse therapy. A therapist may allow the client to feel their stressors and encounter their fears, but instead of letting them succumb to urges, the counselor may teach other coping skills. 

By changing thought patterns, meditating, or substituting healthy thought patterns instead of using substances, clients may learn that they can experience joy and happiness and live stress-free lives in new ways.  

Application in community settings

The concept of positive reinforcement has been tested in community settings with very positive results. In a 21-week experiment that involved paying volunteers to pick up trash at the Cache National Forest, located primarily in Utah, volunteers picked up over 187 bags of trash. Volunteers consistently performed well, whether supervised or not, and the practice has been effective over the long term.

Norway uses the concept of positive reinforcement in its prison system. Prisoners receive the same services as non-incarcerated individuals. Their only consequence is the lack of freedom. The average sentence is only eight months long. Inmates have all the same rights as citizens outside the prison, including the right to study and vote. 

In this prison, inmates are encouraged to go to school or work and are offered step-down services, including social and professional training and transitional housing to help prevent recidivism. About 40% of the prisons are open, where inmates go to their cells only at night.

Reinforcement therapy 

Many who struggle with substance use disorders and other mental health conditions see no way out of their symptoms. Recently, online therapy has become a popular and widely used method of treating these concerns. 

A study by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health showed that online therapy reduced patient substance use. Getting help online is proving to be just as effective as other forms of care as technology improves and people find new ways to create relationships with therapists online. Thus, online therapy may be beneficial when it comes to managing the symptoms of substance use, anxiety, OCD, or other mental illness symptoms with reinforcement therapy. 

If you are struggling with mental health issues, it might be beneficial to seek a consultation from an online therapist. Counselors on online platforms such as BetterHelp can give you guidance and treatment from the comfort of your home. 

Reinforcement psychology can strengthen healing


Reinforcement therapy may be one way to learn to increase positive behaviors in your life and remove those that no longer serve you. If you'd like to learn more about reinforcement and how to practice it, consider reaching out to a counselor to learn research-based techniques and skills.
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