According to Skinner, positive reinforcement is superior to punishment in altering behavior.

As Skinner discussed, positive reinforcement is superior to punishment in altering behavior. He maintained that punishment was not simply the opposite of positive reinforcement; positive reinforcement results in lasting behavioral modification, whereas punishment changes behavior only temporarily and presents many detrimental side effects.

  • From the different combinations of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment, which has been shown to be the most effective in behaviour modification?

  • Also, does combining stimuli like positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, become more effective?


3 Answers 3


In a two-alternative forced choice task with Mongolian Gerbils, Illango et al. (2010) compared the effectiveness of appetitive, aversive, and a combination of appetitive and aversive reinforcers. They conclude that the combination of appetitive and aversive reinforcers led

  • to the highest speed of acquisition
  • to maximum possible performance
  • and delayed extinction

Note, however, that this does not have to be an effect of the reinforcers, but might also be an effect of the informational feedback. In a study on human category learning, Ashby & O'Brian (2007) compared the effectiveness of positive and negative feedback (i.e., not reinforcers) in a two-alternative forced choice task. They also found that a combination of positive and negative feedback results in the best performance.


Ashby FG, O'Brien JB. (2007) The effects of positive versus negative feedback on information-integration category learning. Percept Psychophys 69(6):865-78. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18018967

Ilango A, Wetzel W, Scheich H, Ohl FW. (2010) The combination of appetitive and aversive reinforcers and the nature of their interaction during auditory learning. Neuroscience. 166(3):752-62. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20080152


For sake of covering all my bases, I'll begin with brief, simple definitions (that I'm sure you probably know, but can't say for others). Much of the material is heavily paraphrased or explained in references listed.

Positive reinforcement is the process by which certain consequences of a response increase the probability that the response will recur. (Let's stick with primary to simplify things a bit.)

Negative reinforcement is a process by which a response that leads to the removal of an aversive event is increased.

NOTE: Punishment is not an equivalent nor interchangeable term. Punishment is an aversive stimulus that is presented specifically to weaken or suppress an undesired response.

There have been studies on the effectiveness of various permutations of stimuli and forms of reinforcement. Continuous reinforcement is when every response is reinforced; this is powerfully effective in rapidly achieving manipulation of behavior - though these changes are easily reverted if suddenly reinforcement is suddenly lifted.

In contrast, partial, or intermittent reinforcement has been shown to be a means to continue/keep behavior... resistant to extinction. A classic example is that with casino gambling - one's reward is obtained at various intervals of time. The first and occasional introductory "wins" may provide feelings of exaltation. In addition, since gambling requires a cost in order to continue with the behavior, the well-known gambler's fallacy, a game-theoretic/ecomomic dilemma concept that may also be at play.

On the other hand, punishment deals with the intent to reduce the probability a certain response will reoccur. Deals with the intent of causing undesired consequences the subject will attribute to a given behavior. "In learning theory the punishing event delivered is always contingent on performance and demonstrably reduces the frequency of the behavior being punished." ^1

There are examples of various 'reinforcement schedules' ('algorithms', statistical patterns, heuristics, dependent on the objective); if positive stimuli or reward and negative/neutral results manifest fixed-ratio; simply put, the subject of conditioning will catch on, whether the ratios are "behavior" or "time-interval" contingent. The subject will catch on to the pattern, consistency, and this influences the strength of the conditioning effort. Conditioning tends to be most successful when the reward if given on occasion, with time-dependent variability between isolated events.

The most effective strategy generally is to follow with how the use of slot machines manage to get people addicted. "Response rate does not change between (?) reinforcements." The time-variable (desirability irrelevant) chance for reward, spin-to-spin, has been shown to be the most effective.

You may find Premack's Principle relevant to your questions. This concept states that a behavior engaged in this high frequency (intensity) can be used, intentionally or not, to enforce low-frequency.

I have a couple other sources I need to skim through to fix up my response make any statements made more affirmatively concluded from well-designed experiments.



Perhaps when it comes to operant conditioning, it may be helpful to think in terms of targeted behavior first. A student learning about this concept will be helped if they thought of the behavior being targeted for reinforcement.

So consider:

  1. What is the behavior being targeted for reinforcement?
  2. Is the behavior being targeted, being targeted for an increase in the said behavior, or a decrease in the said behavior?
  3. Then comes the observation of what leads to an increase or decrease in the targeted behavior.
  4. Under Skinnerian laboratory observations, Skinner and of his ilk, were seeking to observe what and when and how frequent the intended behavior comes about, once the behavior they (the laboratory observers) desired to see in the objects behavior.
  5. It is important to note that operant means which behavior is 'operating' in the environment which consequently leads to ultimately a 'reward' or 'punishment' so as to increase or decrease the said behavior.
  6. Positive and Negative Reinforcement is thus understood by either extending a reward (positive) or withdrawing a 'punishment', or unpleasant experience (can be considered as punishment), with both strategies designed to increase (reinforce) the targeted behavior.

Things become a little bit murkier when aversive conditioning, positive and negative punishment is thrown into the above equation.

Psychologists/academics tend to complicate issues with their tendency to introduce 'new' terminology for essentially similar concepts, which then makes things a whole lot more complicated than they should be.


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