Intro to ABA 3: Positive vs. Negative

Why do we do the things we do? : Positive or Negative Reinforcement

Now you’ve read Part 1 and Part 2 you will have learned that behaviours occur due to being evoked by an antecedent and maintained by the consequences that follow.

Remember: The likelihood of a behaviour occurring in the future is impacted by the consequence. If the consequence increases the future probability (the behaviour occurs when the antecedent is present) then this is known as reinforcement.

“Consequences affect only future behavior. Specifically, a behavioral consequence affects the relative frequency with which similar responses will be emitted in the future under similar stimulus conditions”. (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007, page 34).

There are two types of reinforcement: Positive and Negative. Positive involves something (a stimulus) being added to the environment, and Negative involves something (a stimulus) being removed. Both increases the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again in the future.

Let’s look at an example:

ABC 1.4

Asking the question of “What time does the train arrive?” results in a response; an answer, which is added to the environment. As you successfully obtained the information you required, in the future if the frequency or likelihood that you will ask for this information, under similar circumstances then reinforcement has occurred. This is an example of Positive reinforcement.

“Positive Reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed immediately by the presentation of a stimulus and, as a results, occurs more often in the future” (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007, page 36).

Let’s look at another example:

ABC 1.2

The fast food is added to your environment, and if the future probability of you driving through a drive through when your hungry increases, then this is Positive Reinforcement (If the food is bad you may not be reinforced and want to go back to that restaurant!).

Taken from:

“The dependence between work (or going to a drive through) and food is an example of positive reinforcement: reinforcement, because the relation tends to strengthen or maintain the activity (working (or going to drive through))” (Baum, 2005, page 72)

Remember: As with evolution, reinforcement keeps behaviours occurring that are beneficial to the person. Being social and part of a group, having shelter and food are crucial to our survival so obtaining these things will reinforce behaviours that enabled us to get these things.

Taken from:

This is also relevant to behaviours that result in the removal of something (a stimulus) that may be a threat or unpleasant to the person. For example a fear of spiders, may evoke behaviours that result in spiders being removed from the persons environment, e.g., leaving the area, hitting with a rolled up newspaper, stamping on them, etc.. These behaviours increase in the future and remove that stimulus from the environment; Negative reinforcement.

“When the frequency of a behavior increase because past responses have resulted int he withdrawal or termination of a stimulus, the operation is called negative reinforcement (Cooper, Heron & Heward, 2007, page 36).

Let’s consider this next example of Negative Reinforcement. Imagine you have a boss who wants you to clear your work area/space clear at all times, and in the past when he has seen you with a messy work area he has reprimanded you and you found the interaction unpleasant. If your work area is clear then he won’t bother you, so you keep the space tidy to avoid interacting with him.


Daniels (2000) has theses examples,

“You stay late on Thursday night to revise a presentation because you know that if the first draft isn’t letter-perfect, the boss will chew you out (negative reinforcement).

You bought one of your staff members a cup of coffee while discussing the improved quality of his or her work, and the staff members quality indicators went even higher the following week (positive reinforcement).” (Daniels, 2000) page 27).



If you want to take a deeper look at Negative Reinforcement, visit the previous blog ‘Great work, you can go: Negative Reinforcement’


Taken from:

Look out for Part 4. Coming soon!

Also, feel free to contact me about any questions or comments, by commenting below, emailing me at, using the contact form, or Private Message me via Facebook or twitter.

<— Back to the Intro Series Homepage



Baum W. M. (2005). Understanding Behaviorism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Daniels, A. C. (2000). Bringing out the best in People: How to apply the astonishing power of positive reinforcement. New York: The McGraw Hill Companies.

Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behaviour Analysis (2nd ed.) New Jersey: Pearson Education, Inc

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.

Future Reading/Listening:

Autism Training Solutions/Emaley McCulloch, (2009, July, 12). Positive vs neagtive Reinforcement. Retrieved from






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