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Consider the following scenario:

Every time I do the groceries with my son he constantly asks for a packet of lollies. I find this constant asking for lollies very annoying, so I always end up buying him the lollies.

For the parent, the textbook states that this an example of negative reinforcement. Now this seems very intuitive, but I am wondering why this could not be an example of a punishment? The definition of punishment that I have been given is:

"If the behaviour brings about a negative outcome, it's less likely to occur in the future".

I would've thought that the if the son's behaviour changed from misbehaving, this is an example of a punishment (albeit a tasty punishment). If the son continued to misbehave after receiving the lollies, then this would be typical of a reinforcer.

Am I on the right track?

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to psych.SE. If I'm understanding the 1st example correctly, your son is negatively reinforcing you (ie, your lolly-buying behaviour increases in frequency). In the 2nd example, you are either reinforcing your son (by buying him lollies, thereby increasing the frequency of nagging behaviour), or negatively punishing him (by not buying him lollies, thereby decreasing the frequency of nagging behaviour). $\endgroup$ – Arnon Weinberg Jun 26 '19 at 6:37
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    $\begingroup$ Arnon gave a good brief rundown on negative reinforcement. What have you read in the subject of punishments along with negative and positive reinforcement? Where did the definition of punishment come from? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Jun 26 '19 at 8:12
  • $\begingroup$ I agree with Arnon. The first example though could be a positive reinforcement as well from the perspective of the son. His nagging is increased, because he always gets a lollypop. $\endgroup$ – Borut Flis Jun 26 '19 at 8:34
  • $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers I have been reading the work of Burrhus Skinner and his definitions of punishment, negative/positive reinforcement. I am trying to apply this definitions to some everyday experiences (such as the mum with the nagging son). I just can't quite seem to differentiate negative reinforcement from punishment. For instance, consider a inmate at a prison who has just been released. From my understanding, if the behaviour of the inmate shows no signs of change upon release, then by definition jail was not a punishment (rather jail was a reinforcer). I was trying to apply this logic above. $\endgroup$ – Steven H Jun 26 '19 at 8:48
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers "Negative is restrict, positive is to reward" is incorrect; I made a similar mistake in the first draft of my answer. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Jun 26 '19 at 21:11
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Operant Conditioning

The general topic you are referring to is called operant conditioning.

Positive/negative refers to whether you are adding something or taking it away.

Reinforcement/punishment refers to whether you are causing a behavior to increase or decrease.

Positive punishment is adding (positive) a bad thing (punishment) like yelling at or slapping the kid.

Negative reinforcement is taking away (negative) a bad thing (reinforcing).

Negative punishment is taking away (negative) a good thing (punishing), like limiting access to a certain toy or the television.

Both positive punishment and negative punishment tend to reduce a behavior, though often positive punishment is less effective and more likely to produce off-effects.

Importantly, in operant conditioning everything is relative to the consequences of a behavior by the one behaving ("operating"). If someone is not "operating" you cannot describe it in operant conditioning terms.

Your example scenario

Your first example is positive reinforcement from the perspective of the child: their behavior (begging) leads to getting rewarded with lollies. One would expect that this would increase future begging for candy rather than reduce it.

The only way to think of this as negative reinforcement is from the perspective of the parent, for whom giving the child lollies (the parent's behavior) has removed a noxious stimulus (the begging by the child), which might lead the parent to again purchase lollies to reduce complaining.

However, in parenting or training a dog or most any other context where there is a power relationship, you are usually more concerned with thinking about how behaviors affect the child/dog/whomever. In this situation, if a parent wants to stop the begging long term, likely the best approach is to target extinction of the behavior, which occurs when a behavior (e.g., begging) does not achieve a positive outcome (e.g., no lollies are obtained).

When you write:

I would've thought that the if the son's behaviour changed from misbehaving, this is an example of a punishment (albeit a tasty punishment)

From the perspective of the son, this is not an example of operant conditioning, because the behaviour change (stopping begging) is not causing the 'stimulus' (getting candy), but rather the other way around. You could only consider this operant conditioning from the perspective of the parent, who is being trained to do an action ("give candy") to remove an aversive stimulus (child begging).

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  • $\begingroup$ I am not 100% convinced that the flowchart in the Wikipedia article is accurately defining the relevant aspects of the concept. Have you got any reliable sources you would prefer to cite? $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Jun 27 '19 at 7:11
  • $\begingroup$ "Reinforcement/punishment refers to whether you are causing a behavior to increase or decrease" is not necessarily accurate. You can use reinforcement to increase or decrease behaviour but punishment is only for decreasing behaviour. $\endgroup$ – Chris Rogers Jun 27 '19 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisRogers I am quite confident now. Still looking for a good general reference that isn't something like a textbook and not very accessible. Reinforcement always increases some behavior, although behavior can sometimes include "stopping doing something." $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Jun 27 '19 at 7:26
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    $\begingroup$ I am also confident in the last paragraph, but if you can explain how you see an issue maybe the way I wrote it is open to misinterpretation. The problem with OPs line of thinking that I meant to point out is the mismatched cause and effect structure. Operant conditioning only applies to actions taken before the result. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Jun 27 '19 at 7:28
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    $\begingroup$ .*Both positive punishment and negative punishment tend to reduce a behavior, though often positive punishment is less effective and more likely to produce off-effects* Do you have any evidence for this? $\endgroup$ – Borut Flis Jun 27 '19 at 13:57

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