Negative Reinforce- ment

It doesn't mean what you think it means.

Most people use "negative reinforcement" as a euphemism for "punishment," but this is only because most people equate the word "negative" with "bad." In the highly technical language of behavioral psychology, where the term originated, negative reinforcement means something very different and much more interesting.

A "reinforcement" is anything that increases the frequency of a behavior. This is commonly called a "reward." Money is the universal reinforcer because you can get almost anyone to do more of almost anything by paying them. Animals respond well to food, which makes them a lot like college students.

A "punishment," on the other hand, is anything that reduces the frequency of a behavior. Violence is a popular choice. You can also punish someone by taking away something that they like. Parents do it all the time. This is called "negative punishment," because you've removed an existing stimulus, rather than introducing a new one.

By that same logic, a "negative reinforcement" increases the frequency of a behavior by removing something unpleasant. Taking out the garbage is an excellent example. Letting the garbage sit is not a specific behavior; you can do a lot of other things while you're not taking out the garbage. If you procrastinate too long, an unpleasant odor starts to pervade your environment. Your only reward for removing the malodorous mass is that the smell will go away. The elimination of that odor negatively reinforces taking out the trash.

The interesting things start to happen when negative reinforcement trains a person or animal to prevent something unpleasant from happening. This is called escape/avoidance learning. Once the subject begins to anticipate the unwanted stimulus, the preventative behavior can occur without any reinforcement at all. In the previous example, you would have learned to take out the trash before it starts to smell. That's a good thing.

However, escape/avoidance learning can also contribute to anxiety disorders and compulsive behavior. This is because it removes the stimulus from the equation and makes behaviors difficult to extinguish. For instance, let's say I've learned to reboot my computer every morning in order to prevent it from freezing up half way through the day. That's all well and good, but what if the problem was temporary? How will I know when I can stop my ritual rebooting? Escape/avoidance learning underpins most types of compulsive, anxious behavior.

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