Difference Between Reinforcement and Punishment

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: July 01, 2023


Difference Between Reinforcement and Punishment

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The two core ideas of operant conditioning are reinforcement and punishment, where the former encourages a certain behavior, and the latter discourages it. There are numerous distinctions between these two, even though many people confuse them.

Reinforcement vs Punishment

Anything that increases the likelihood that a reaction will occur is referred to as reinforcement. Punishment is the application of a painful penalty or consequence to someone because of improper behavior.

Difference Between Reinforcement and Punishment (In Tabular form)

MeaningThe term "reinforcement" refers to the act of encouraging or maintaining a habit of behavior.To inhibit an undesired behavior, punishment involves the act of punishing or forfeiting something of value.
What is it?a successful outcome.An unsuccessful outcome.
Responseenhances responselowers the reaction.
Consequenceraises the likelihood of conduct.reduces the likelihood of conduct.
EncompassesGaining a favorable stimulus or losing a negative one.imposing a negative stimulus or removing a positive one.

What is Reinforcement?

"Reinforcement" in operant conditioning refers to anything that makes a reaction more likely to occur. In 1937, psychologist B.F. Skinner first used the phrase.

For instance, rewarding a child for putting their toys away as soon as they do so could be considered reinforcement. If the desirable conduct is reinforced with praise, the youngster will be more likely to repeat it in the future.

Anything that reinforces or intensifies a behavior qualifies as a conditioning reinforcer. For instance, giving praise, letting students skip past pointless homework, or giving out minor rewards like candy, additional downtime, or fun hobbies are all examples of ways to promote behavior in the classroom.

Types of Reinforcement


Primary reinforcement, also known as unconditional reinforcement, happens in the wild. Primary reinforcers frequently have an evolutionary foundation since they help the species survive. As a result, they don't need to be learned to function.

Primary reinforcers include, for instance:

  • Air
  • Water
  • Food
  • Sleep

Primary reinforcement might also be influenced by genetics. For instance, research indicates that people might choose their partners in part based on genetic features they find desirable.


When a stimulus is combined with another reinforcing stimulus, it becomes secondary reinforcement. This is also referred to as conditioned reinforcement in applied behavior analysis (ABA).

When training a dog, for instance, the primary reinforcers can be praise and cookies. Along with praise and sweets as a secondary reinforcer, a clicker's sound can be incorporated. The clicker's sound eventually starts to function as a conditioned reinforcer on its own.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Beyond primary and secondary reinforcements, operant conditioning uses two more forms of reinforcement. Both have an impact on behavior but in unique ways. The two varieties are:

  • Positive Reinforcement: - This entails including something to boost reaction, like offering a youngster sweets after they clean their room.
  • Negative Reinforcement: - A quiz might be canceled if students turn in all their assignments for the week to maximize response. The teacher aims to encourage the desirable behavior—completing all homework—by removing the negative stimulus—the quiz.

It's important to note that although these concepts contain the words positive and negative, Skinner did not use them to denote "good" or "bad." Instead, consider what these concepts might signify if they were used in mathematics.

Positive is the same as a plus sign, which denotes that something has been added to or applied to the situation. The negative is the same as the minus sign, which denotes that something has been taken away or subtracted from the situation.

Conditioned Reinforcer Examples in the Real World

Here are a few examples of conditioned reinforcement in action that show how it might be utilized to alter behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

"Great job!" The coach says after you throw a pitch during practice for the office softball team. As a result, you are more likely to pitch the ball in the same way again. This serves as an example of constructive reinforcement.

Another illustration would be exceeding your manager's monthly sales quota while working, in which case you would be paid a bonus. Money is a conditioned reinforcer, increasing the likelihood that you'll attempt to surpass the minimal sales quota once more the following month.

Negative Reinforcement

To avoid contracting the flu, you see your doctor and obtain your annual flu shot. In this situation, you are acting in a way (getting a shot) to prevent being exposed to an unpleasant stimulus (becoming sick). This is an example of unfavorable reinforcement.

Another illustration is using aloe vera gel for sunburn to lessen the pain. This is an example of negative reinforcement since using the gel prevents a painful outcome. You will also be more inclined to utilize aloe vera gel in the future because engaging in the behavior reduces an unpleasant outcome.

Reinforcement and Response Strength

The timing and manner of reinforcement can impact how powerful a response is overall. The following characteristics can be used to gauge and define reaction potency:

  • Accuracy: Was the intended reaction brought forth by the reinforcement?
  • How much longer did the answer last?
  • How frequently did the response happen?
  • Did the response come on every occasion?

Reinforcement Schedules

One can control the order in which reinforcers are provided. Continuous reinforcement is frequently utilized in the early stages of learning. This entails rewarding a behavior each time it manifests itself, like rewarding a puppy every time it urinates outside.

Using a partial reinforcement schedule is possible once a behavior has been learned. These four are the primary forms of partial reinforcement:

  • Schedules with fixed intervals: Reinforcing a behavior after a predetermined amount of time has passed.
  • Fixed-ratio schedules: Reinforcing a behavior once a predetermined quantity of responses has taken place.
  • Schedules with variable intervals: Reinforcing the behavior after an erratic amount of time has passed.
  • Schedules with variable ratios: Reinforcing the behavior after an erratic number of responses.

Facts about Reinforcement

  • A key idea in psychology and behavioral science is reinforcement, which refers to the use of incentives or sanctions to reinforce or deter certain behavior.
  • Early in the 20th century, behaviorist B.F. Skinner developed the idea of reinforcement.
  • Either positive or negative reinforcement may occur. While negative reinforcement is the removal of an unpleasant stimulus, positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reward or other enjoyable stimulus.
  • Positive reinforcement, which rewards desired behaviors with things like praise, incentives, or privileges, is frequently employed to promote desired behaviors.
  • Negative reinforcement, such as shutting off an alarm when you wake up, is used to reinforce positive behavior by removing unpleasant cues.
  • To influence behavior, reinforcement can be employed in a variety of contexts, including education, parenting, and the workplace.
  • For reinforcement to be successful, timing is essential. In general, immediate reinforcement is more powerful than delayed reinforcement.
  • Reinforcement can be continuous, rewarding the behavior each time it occurs, or intermittent, rewarding the behavior only sometimes.
  • Further divisions of intermittent reinforcement include fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval schedules.
  • With fixed ratio schedules, a behavior is reinforced after a predetermined number of responses. Getting a prize, for instance, after finishing every fifth task.
  • When using a variable ratio schedule, a behavior is reinforced after receiving an average number of answers, though the precise amount fluctuates. For instance, finishing a game after an average of 10 tries to earn a prize.
  • With fixed interval schedules, a behavior is reinforced after a predetermined period has passed since the previous reinforcement. Getting paid every two weeks, as an illustration.
  • Reinforcing behavior is done according to variable interval schedules after an average period has passed since the previous reinforcement. Getting praise for good behavior at random intervals, for instance.
  • Intermittent reinforcement aids in long-term habit maintenance while continuous reinforcement is helpful for early learning and creating new behaviors.
  • Additionally, there are two types of reinforcement: primary and secondary. While secondary reinforcement is acquired and gained value through association with primary reinforcers, primary reinforcement incorporates innate, biologically significant rewards like food or water.
  • It's possible for reinforcement to have unexpected effects. Unwanted behaviors may spread more widely if they are accidentally reinforced.
  • Other behavioral strategies like shaping (encouraging successive approximations of a desired behavior) and chaining (tying a series of behaviors together) can be employed in conjunction with reinforcement.
  • Depending on individual differences, cultural considerations, and the characteristics of the behavior being rewarded, reinforcement may or may not be effective.
  • Animals and artificial intelligence systems can also be trained to behave in certain ways through reinforcement, which is not just for humans.
  • The science of applied behavior analysis (ABA), which is commonly employed in interventions for people with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental difficulties, places a strong emphasis on reinforcement.

What is Punishment?

The term "punishment" in operant conditioning psychology refers to any action conducted in response to a behavior that reduces the likelihood that it will occur again in the future. While both positive and negative reinforcement is used to improve behavior, punishment focuses on reducing or eliminating undesired actions.

In the public's mind, negative reinforcement and punishment are commonly confused. The difference is that rewards increase the probability of a behavior occurring, but punishment decreases the probability.

Kinds of Punishment

The scientist who coined the term "operant conditioning," behaviorist B. F. Skinner, distinguished two categories of unpleasant stimuli that can be employed as punishment:

Positive Punishment

Punishment by application is another name for this kind of penalty. Presenting an unpleasant stimulus after a behavior has occurred is known as positive punishment. For instance, the teacher may reprimand a student for interrupting during class when they speak before their turn.

Negative Punishment

Another name for this kind of punishment is "punishment by removal." After an action has occurred, a favorable stimulus is removed as negative punishment. For instance, the instructor might immediately inform the student who spoke out of turn in the previous scenario that they will miss recess because of their behavior.


You can certainly recall a few instances where a penalty did not consistently stop undesirable behavior, even though punishment can be beneficial in some situations. One instance is prison. When someone is imprisoned for a crime, they frequently return to crime after being freed.

Why does punishment seem to be effective in certain situations but not in others? Researchers have identified two elements that influence the effectiveness of punishment in various contexts.

First off, swift punishment has a greater impact. Sending criminals to jail does not always result in a decrease in criminal activity, which may help explain why prison terms frequently come into effect years after the offense has been committed.

Second, persistent application of punishment yields better results. Giving a punishment every time a behavior happens can be challenging. For instance, even after obtaining a speeding ticket, many people still drive faster than the speed limit. Why? because the act receives uneven punishment.

Drawbacks and Consequences

Punishment has some significant disadvantages as well. First off, punishment-induced behavior changes are frequently transient. In his book "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," Skinner stated that "punished behavior is likely to reappear after the punitive consequences are withdrawn."

The fact that punishment provides no information about more desirable or proper behavior may be its worst downside. Subjects may be taught to avoid taking activities, but they are not taught what they ought to do.

The fact that punishment may have unanticipated and unpleasant effects is another element to consider. For instance, a 2014 American survey revealed that over half of parents acknowledged hitting their younger kids (age 9 and under) in the previous year. According to research, children who experience this kind of physical punishment may develop aggressive, antisocial, and delinquent behaviors.

Because of this, Skinner and other psychologists advise weighing any potential short-term benefits of adopting punishment as a behavior change strategy against any potential long-term drawbacks.

Facts about Punishment

  • By imposing unfavorable consequences, punishment is a behavioral approach used to reduce or stop unwanted actions.
  • Punishment and reinforcement are closely related concepts because they both work to alter behavior.
  • Punishment comes in two flavors: positive and negative. While negative punishment is the removal of a pleasurable stimulus, positive punishment involves the addition of an unpleasant stimulus.
  • By imposing an unpleasant consequence, such as reprimanding, scolding, or physical discomfort, positive punishment seeks to reduce a behavior.
  • Negative punishment, such as taking away privileges, time-outs, or losing prizes, seeks to reduce a behavior by removing a favorable stimulus.
  • The timing, consistency, intensity, and appropriateness of the punishment, among other variables, all affect how successful it is.
  • When punishment is immediate and consistent—that is, meted out each time the undesirable conduct occurs—it is often more effective.
  • Punishment may temporarily stop a behavior, but it may not necessarily lead to a long-term change in behavior or address the root of the behavior.
  • The intensity of the punishment must be proportionate to the behavior that is being addressed and be appropriate. A punishment that is excessive or severe may have detrimental emotional and psychological impacts.
  • Combining punishment with constructive reinforcement for preferable alternative actions may make it more effective.
  • Since applying punishment entails purposefully causing difficulty or distress to change behavior, it presents ethical questions.
  • Between the punisher and the person being punished, punishment can lead to strained relationships and unwanted emotional connotations.
  • Depending on a person's specific characteristics, including age, temperament, and cultural background, punishment may or may not be effective.
  • If the person feels attention or other types of reinforcement because of the punished action, punishment may unintentionally foster unwanted habits.
  • When other behavioral strategies have failed or when emergency action is required to address safety concerns, punishment is frequently utilized as a last resort.
  • To foster comprehension and lessen uncertainty, it is crucial to give precise, consistent justifications for why the punishment is being applied.
  • Positive counsel, instruction, and chances for the person to learn and practice different, more suitable behaviors should go along with the use of punishment.
  • Instead of focusing on the offender's personality or personal traits, punishment should be directed at the problematic behavior.
  • Punishment is a contentious topic in psychology and behavioral science, and other tactics, like proactive strategies and support for positive conduct, are becoming more and more important.
  • The discipline of applied behavior analysis (ABA) offers principles for the moral and efficient application of punishment in conjunction with other methods of behavior modification.

Main Difference Between Reinforcement and Punishment (in Points)

Regarding the distinction between punishment and reinforcement, the following points are pertinent:

  • Reinforcement is the process of enabling or enhancing a pattern of behavior so that it can occur again in the future. Punishment, on the other hand, refers to the imposition of a fine or any other adverse consequence to discourage bad behavior.
  • While punishment is an unpleasant result of transgression, reinforcement is an enthusiastic conclusion for achievement.
  • Punishment weakens a reaction, whereas reinforcement amplifies it.
  • The outcome of reinforcement is an increase in behavior frequency. On the other side, punishment will lead to less frequent behavior.
  • Gaining a favorable stimulus or giving up a negative one are both aspects of reinforcement. Punishment, on the other hand, entails adding painful stimuli or taking away pleasurable ones.


In summary, reinforcement will increase the probability that the desired behavior will occur again. Punishment, on the other hand, usually works to reduce the likelihood that the targeted behavior will occur again. The fundamental principles of behaviorism are reinforcement and punishment, both of which aim to alter and control an organization's behavior, whether it be good or negative.



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"Difference Between Reinforcement and Punishment." Diffzy.com, 2024. Mon. 10 Jun. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-reinforcement-and-punishment>.

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