What Is Reinforcement? Psychology, Definition, And Applications

By Toni Hoy|Updated September 1, 2022

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. Also, behavior that's followed by unpleasant consequences will less likely be repeated. The use of positive reinforcement quotes has helped improved symptoms of those struggling with mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. 

The Definition Of Reinforcement In Psychology

The term reinforcement refers to anything that increases the probability that a response will occur. The reinforcement psychology definition refers to the effect that reinforcement has on behavior. Reinforcement will increase or strengthen the response.

Reinforcement Psychology Can Strengthen Healing

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

Categories Of Reinforcement

There are two categories of reinforcement: primary reinforcement and secondary 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 provide us with food, sleep, water, air, and even sex.

Our experiences and our genetics often play a factor in primary reinforcement. If we don't like a certain food, we're just not going to eat it. People with fair skin aren't likely to spend long hours at the beach, bathing in the sun.

Secondary reinforcement is also known as conditioned reinforcement. This category of reinforcement involves using a reinforcer that's paired with another reinforcer. We can find a good 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, at some point the clicker will be able to serve as the primary reinforcer, and the treat can be taken away completely.

Types Of Reinforcement In Psychology

Reinforcement can be of a positive or negative nature. When reinforcement is positive, the trainer is adding something to increase or invoke a response. A good example of this is giving a child small candies as a reward for toilet training.

Negative reinforcement is removing something to increase the response. An example of this is if a child owes his or her parents a sum of money and the child is struggling to pay it back. If the parents ask the child to pay 90% of the money back by a certain date and the child complies, the parents will waive the remaining 10% of the balance.

Note that positive and negative in this context doesn't pertain to good and bad. As in mathematics, it's adding something to reinforce behavior or taking something away to reinforce a behavior.

Factors That Influence The Strength Of The Response

How someone reinforces the behavior and when they reinforce it are factors that affect the overall strength of the response. The following things can measure the strength of the response:

  • Persistence
  • Frequency
  • Duration
  • Accuracy of response after reinforcement stops

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

Continuous reinforcement means that you reinforce a certain behavior every time that it happens. Partials reinforcement means that once the subject has acquired the behavior, the trainer can 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.

Applications For Reinforcement

The basic principles in reinforcement psychology are being used in many facets of life including education, clinical settings, and community settings, to name a few.

Application In The Educational Setting

Perhaps one of the greatest applications for reinforcement psychology pertains to the development of positive behavioral supports and interventions (PBS) as a means for modifying student behavior at school and in the classrooms.

PBS is a program that uses universal behavioral interventions that are recognized worldwide and are aimed at preventing disruptive behaviors. PBS can be used at the school-wide level, classroom level, and individual student level. PBS is most successful when schools employ the interventions at all three levels.

At the school-wide level, a team of researchers did a three-year study of over 438,500 students in the Chicago Public School system between the years of 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, as well as 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 of the studies showed that PBS resulted in higher test scores and higher 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 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 at all in the normal classroom setting to achieve the goal of helping him lessen his anxiety enough that he could speak. The experiment proved that contingent positive reinforcement is the most applicable design of therapy for students who live with selective mutism.

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, increasing energy, and encouraging sleep. Unfortunately, the reinforcement of substance use is an unhealthy reinforcer that can cause dependence. Substance abuse counselors may use positive and negative reinforcements to encourage healthy behavior and help clients substitute new habits for unhealthy ones.

Positive reinforcements are often used in substance abuse treatment to relieve the client of the stressful situations that are causing them to look for an escape. Positive reinforcements may include involving family members in treatment to teach them how to positively influence their loved one in treatment instead of being confrontational and causing additional stress. 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 doing yoga, rock climbing, outdoor meditation, ropes courses, and other enjoyable or challenging therapies.

Negative reinforcement can also be quite successful in substance abuse therapy. The idea is to allow the client to feel their stressors and encounter their fears, but instead of letting them succumb to drug or alcohol abuse, the therapist teaches them new coping strategies. By changing thought patterns, meditating, or substituting some type of healthy thought pattern with using substances, clients will learn that they can experience joy and happiness and live stress-free lives without feeling like they need to use substances to feel the euphoria.

Many who struggle with substance use disorder see no way out of their dependence. However, the practice of treating substance use disorders via online counseling is growing in popularity. This study by the Canadian Agency for Drugs and Technologies in Health, showed that e-therapy or online therapy reduced substance use in patients. 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 a relationship with therapists online. Thus, when it comes to managing the symptoms of substance use, anxiety, OCD, or other mental illness symptoms with reinforcement therapy, online therapy can help.

If you are struggling with substance use or other mental issues, it might be a good idea to seek a consultation from an online therapist. Counselors at BetterHelp are ready and available to give you guidance and treatment from the comfort of your own home. Online therapists are trained and licensed professionals who can work with you on reinforcement psychology if that will help you cope with your mental health. Being able to communicate with your therapist via chat, video, or phone on a regular basis will give you more immediate access to care you might need and the reinforcement which may help you build a better life.  Read what others have said about their experiences below.

Reinforcement Psychology Can Strengthen Healing

When you have topics like "friendship," it's true that you likely won't be able to find specific studies. In these cases, please frame seeking help as a general option for improving the quality of life (which you can then relate to the article's topic). For example, "Sometimes stress, work, and other challenges in life place a strain on our friendships. When it comes to managing these challenges in healthy ways and protecting your friendships, online therapy can help. For example, research shows that online therapy is an effective option for treating a wide range of mental health issues, including depression, panic disorder, burnout, and PTSD. One study found that online therapy significantly reduced symptoms associated with all of these mental health issues. [LINK: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0040089] When you prioritize your own mental health, you're better able to support your friendships."

“Jarrod is a professional, kind and caring yet stern when needed. He uses positive reinforcement and gentle lines of questions to allow me to come to new realizations or create plans of action without scrutiny. It’s a very safe-feeling conversation. I appreciate the opportunity to be helped along on my journey by him!”


“Laura is a thoughtful listener, and has helped me immensely with processing several issues in my life. She offers constructive feedback on behaviors, including mine as well as the potential motivations of others, and helps me to understand the situation objectively without minimizing my thoughts or feelings on the situation. She's been so helpful and I'm grateful to have the opportunity to work with her.”

Application In The Community Setting

The concept of positive reinforcement has been tried 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, which is primarily in Utah, volunteers picked up over 187 bags of trash. Volunteers consistently performed to task whether they were 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. The country tries to place offenders in the lowest security area possible so that it's easier for them to return to the community. 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 prisons where inmates only have to go to their cells at night.

Getting Help To Solve Problems Or Improve Mood And Functioning

Reinforcement techniques are helpful for people of all ages, genders, races, and ethnicities. Unlike other types of treatment that require medication, reinforcement therapy is safe and non-invasive. Reinforcement therapy has been proven to be effective in nearly every setting, and it can help you too. You have nothing to lose and much to gain by contacting BetterHelp today to get matched with a licensed therapist that can help get you on the path to improved mental health.

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