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Negative Reinforcement: It Isn’t What you Think It Is

negative reinforcementMost lay people, and quite a few professionals for that matter, have an erroneous assumption about what negative reinforcement is all about. Specifically, they believe that negative reinforcement and punishment are essentially the same thing. But they’re not. And you should really know what negative reinforcement is all about because it can affect you and the people you care about a lot.

The “reinforcement” part of the term means that negative reinforcement is a strategy that tends to “reinforce” or increase the likelihood that a behavior will happen again. In other words, negative reinforcement strengthens behaviors to which it is applied and makes them more likely to occur again. By contrast, punishment involves delivering an unpleasant consequence to behaviors in the hopes that the problem behaviors will decrease.

Negative reinforcement occurs whenever a behavior manages to eliminate or rid you of a distressing, unpleasant event or feeling. And I can tell you, negative reinforcement can have amazing power. Our dog Murphy knows this principle very, very well even though she’s never read a single psychology book (that I know of anyway—I’ll have to ask her to be sure).

When Murphy wants to be petted (which is rather often), she goes up to any human that’s around and starts to scratch that person’s knee. Her scratch is pretty annoying, if not painful at times. Of course, Murphy knows that people realize what she wants—to be petted. And most folks start petting her immediately because they know the scratching will stop if they do. In other words, Murphy removes the unpleasant feeling of being scratched once people start doing what she wants. Sometimes people start petting her before the scratching even starts because she has trained them so well with her negative reinforcement technique.

Trust me; it’s really difficult not to be affected by negative reinforcement even when you know it’s going on. My wife and I recognize Murphy’s tactics, yet find it almost irresistible to ignore her scratching, and inevitably cave in to her demands. But negative reinforcement can impact lots of behaviors that may be more important than petting your dog. Here are two common examples; perhaps you can think of more.

  1. People with OCD often experience obsessional thoughts that make them feel distress and anxiety (such as “perhaps that doorknob I touched was laden with MRSA germs that could kill me”). When they have thoughts like that, they engage in a compulsion in order to reduce their worry or distress (such as washing their hands excessively). The compulsion briefly reduces their distress, but it also powerfully reinforces the obsessional worry that led to the compulsion. An ever worsening cycle ensues. Sometimes these folks gradually increase their hand washing to the point that they do it for hours every day. All because of the power of negative reinforcement.
  2. Anxious kids often express worry and frustration to their parents. The parents find their kids’ anxiety and worry distressing so they try to reassure their kids. The reassurance usually makes the kids feel better for a little while, but it too reinforces the very insecurity that led to the reassurance seeking. This problem also quickly turns into an ever worsening negative cycle. The kids express worry and frustration more often and the parents find themselves powerfully motivated to eliminate their kids’ distress even if it’s only temporary. These parents usually don’t understand that they are actually making the problem worse.

Well, I didn’t plan on making this blog a pitch for our books. However, if you want to learn even more about this issue, we discuss it in more detail in Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies as well as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies.


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Negative Reinforcement: It Isn’t What you Think It Is

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D.

Charles H. Elliott, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and a Founding Fellow in the Academy of Cognitive Therapy. He is also a member of the faculty at Fielding Graduate University. He specializes in the treatment of adolescents and adults with obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety, anger, depression, and personality disorders. Dr. Elliott is coauthor of: Overcoming Anxiety For Dummies (2nd Ed), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder For Dummies, Seasonal Affective Disorder For Dummies, Anxiety and Depression Workbook For Dummies, Depression For Dummies, Why Can't I Get What I Want?, Why Can’t I Be the Parent I Want to Be?, and Hollow Kids: Recapturing the Soul of a Generation Lost to the Self-Esteem Myth. His website is:

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APA Reference
Elliott, C. (2012). Negative Reinforcement: It Isn’t What you Think It Is. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 8, 2020, from


Last updated: 3 Feb 2012
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