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Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment — They Don’t Mean the Same Thing!

August 31, 2011

Over at PBS, the folks at NOVA have started a new blog series called “Animal Acumen” where they post interesting stories about animal cognition. Always interesting! The latest article is about the incentive for animals to cooperate in society.

Group Weight Lifting and Tug-of-War Event
Photo by prashant maxsteel

Unfortunately, the first thing I noticed about this post was that in the second paragraph the author makes a mistake that so, so many people make in talking about how animals (including humans) learn. It’s a mistake that makes me wince like I’m hearing nails on a chalkboard: she mixes up “negative reinforcement” with “punishment.”

Since the reply I tried to leave ended up being really long and their commenting system seems to be down, I figured I could just turn the comment into a blog post of my own.

Below are the first couple of paragraphs from the Inside NOVA blog post:

Why do most of us work together for the common good, even when it might personally benefit us more to cheat? Is it because we fear we would be punished for not following the rules? Because we have been taught to treat others as we would want to be treated?

Because cooperation is vital for survival in a variety of contexts, it may be that fair play is an evolutionary adaptive behavior, scientists say. Of course, the flip side is that when an individual does behave selfishly, others often use some form of negative reinforcement to dissuade such behavior in the future. [emphasis added] It appears animals do the same. First, though, an animal must recognize unfair situations.

Here’s the gist of what I tried to write on the Inside Nova blog:

In animal behavior language, the phrase “negative reinforcement” means something specific — in fact, it means the opposite of what is meant in this context. “Negative” means “absence or removal” not “unfavorable”, and “reinforcement” means “something that causes the behavior to increase.” Therefore “negative reinforcement” is taking stimulus away in order to *encourage* behavior. What the paragraph is trying to express (i.e., other members of the group provide “feedback” that dissuades repetition of the undesirable behavior by an individual) is actually “positive punishment”.

I know in popular speech people say “negative reinforcement” because it sounds less harsh than “punishment”, but that’s just wrong; reinforcing something you’re trying to discourage will backfire and thus would be a social strategy that groups of animals would quickly stop doing.

The word “punishment” in the realm of animal behavior science doesn’t have a bad connotation (it simply means “something that causes a behavior to occur less frequently”). In fact, “negative” doesn’t have a unfavorable connotation either, funny enough. Negative isn’t bad, it’s simply absence/removal of stimulus (which could be desired or not desired by the subject). Positive punishment isn’t the oxymoron it sounds like either — remember, in behavior lingo “positive” does NOT mean “good.”

wild parrot Photo by artolog

Words Matter…  aka. Why You Should Care

So why is it such a big deal that everyone always gets this wrong?

I know I’ve been flamed on parrot blogs for getting my knickers in a bunch that other members used “negative reinforcement” and “punishment” interchangeably. Actually, I think it’s more fair to say I was flamed for getting my knickers in a bunch that members continued to willfully and obstinately continue to do so, on purpose, after it’s been explained what the difference is.

So, back to the question: Why am I such a stickler? Because when people are trying to solve behavior problems and they are given the steps and the tools for solving those problems, it matters that they understand the concepts and the words used to refer to them.

If an animal behavior export or trainer begins to tell their client “avoid using punishment” and the client responds “oh, I would NEVER punish my bird! Never! I only use positive reinforcement.” … should you trust the client understands what “punishment” means? Nope! In my experience, as soon as you say the word “punishment”, people go on the defensive and claim they don’t do it. But they don’t take the time to really understand that just because they don’t mean something to be punishment, or just because they have good intentions, that this doesn’t mean that they aren’t *discouraging* the animal an action. You don’t have to hit an animal to “punish”. Punishment can be something as simple and tame as a stern look (which works wonders on dogs, by the way!).

It bears repeating: just because YOU don’t think something is punishment, doesn’t mean it’s not. What matters is whether the stimulus decreases the likelihood of the behavior in the future.

For example, let’s say that you’re trying to tame a fearful bird. Every time the bird gets a bit courageous and comes closer, you try to reward it by petting it on the head. That’s positive reinforcement, right? Well, no. It’s only “positive” in the sense that you’re “adding” stimulus immediately following the behavior, but despite your good intentions, if the bird doesn’t like being touched, it’s not reinforcing at all.

In fact, if the bird learns that you’re going to try to touch it every time it comes close to you, and it doesn’t like that, then it’s going to stop coming close to you to avoid being touched. See? That is, in fact, the definition of punishment. It doesn’t mean you’re evil for wanting to show your pet affection, but if you don’t want to accept that you’ve been “punishing” your bird the desired behavior simply because you don’t like the word, it’s going to be difficult for a behaviorist or trainer to help you do a better job working with your bird.

Did I just say petting is punishment? Of course not!  It depends on the context. If your pet likes being touched and will do things in order to get petted more, then petting would be a reinforcer.

84..365 | [Explored] Angry Birds
Photo by KatKamin

So what about negative reinforcement?

But we still shouldn’t use negative reinforcement, right? No. Again, negative does not mean bad. There are of course legitimate reasons why a trainer might need to pull “negative reinforcement” out of his/her bag of training tricks. You use negative reinforcement by removing something (undesirable) from the animal’s environment in order to encourage a particular behavior.

But if you’re so wedded to the notion that “negative reinforcement” is just a nice, more PC way to say “punishment” than you’re going to have a very difficult time understanding conceptually when and how to use actual “negative reinforcement”.

It helps to remember that negative reinforcement is a type of reinforcement. Does adding or subtracting this stimulus encourage the behavior to happen more? Then it’s reinforcing.

If you don’t understand the terminology (or insist on using terms in the exact opposite of what they mean), how will you be able to truly understand and apply the principles that they describe?

Is it really critical to understand the scientific principles behind training in order to do some basic training? Probably not. But if you have an animal with serious behavior problems that really need to be solved, or you’re giving advice to someone who does, I  encourage you to learn about the terms that professional animal trainers and behaviorists use and how to apply them. I promise it’ll help you put together a better strategy for fixing problem behaviors.

Too long; didn’t read?

Negative reinforcement = encourages behavior
Punishment = discourages behavior
They don’t mean the same thing. Don’t use them interchangeably.

Edited Sept 2: Clarifying that you punish or reinforce behavior, not subjects.

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6 comments

  1. This was one of the clearest explanations of those terms I’ve found, and I read a lot of dog training blogs – most of which confuse me when they bring out the ‘positive/negative reinforcement/punishment’ talk.

    Even with your very helpful definitions, I think the terms can get blurred in real life.

    Lets say your dog is standing still, and you pet him, then he jumps up, so you stop. Were you using negative reinforcement (stopping petting) to encourage the behavior of being still, or are you using positive punishment (starting to ignore him) to discourage the behavior of jumping up?

    It’s funny that while these terms are so often confused, nobody ever seems to confuse positive reinforcement with negative punishment, even though those are similarly related. You could say that my opening the door when my dog sits is removing the punishment of her being confined inside. But nobody ever does…except maybe my dog.


    • I know it can be confusing, especially if different things are happening at the same time. Often you pair different stimuli to make them most effective. Barbara Heidenreich points out that you should always follow negative punishment with immediate positive reinforcement; negative reinforcement is, in fact, “sometimes referred to as a time out from positive reinforcement.”

      In your example, “Starting to ignore him” is negative punishment not positive punishment – “taking away attention” is the negative part. And “stopping petting him” is not negative reinforcement because removing a desired reward is not reinforcing.

      Hope that makes sense. Thanks for stopping by!


  2. Being freshly graduated from university, after they drilled the difference between the four contexts of operant conditioning into me, I fully understand your need to correct people on the difference. Especially when animal training has improved and come so far, more people could be so much more successful in training if they realized that though positive and negative reinforcement are highly effective, there is still a place for punishment. Good blog post 🙂


  3. Thank you SO MUCH for this! I had this exact problem in my psychology class the other day: I tried to explain the difference to my class but they just would not believe me, and instead continued to think Negative reinforcement is the same as punishment – even the teacher! So frustrating, but I will show this post to them, and hopefully they will finally believe me. Thank you!


  4. Came across your article, because I’m continuing Psychology coursework, and this was always the most confusing concept to me.
    Here’s the problem I always have with this:

    Say I have a cat that pees on things. When he does, I lock him in the bathroom for a couple hours.

    Negative Reinforcement? I take away his freedom to encourage his peeing only in his catbox.

    Positive Punshiment? I add confinement when he pees on things.


    • Unless he enjoys being locked in the bathroom, that is in no way reinforcing. Reinforcement = encourages the behavior that happened immediately before. (Think of it this way: reinforcement is rewarding. Is being put in the bathroom rewarding? No.)

      You don’t punish one behavior to encourage another. That’s way too complicated. The reinforcer/punisher needs to happen immediately after the behavior and be immediate feedback on that particular behavior only.

      My question is this: do you really think locking him up for several hours accomplishes anything? That is way too long to be effective for training. A couple minutes is one thing, but after a couple of hours I’m pretty sure your cat has no idea why he’s in the bathroom and doesn’t associate it with his behavior anymore.



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