Positive & negative reinforcement, explained by The Family Guy


I am a positive reinforcement dog trainer.

This does not mean that I throw a party whenever Amos poops outside. It doesn’t mean that I smile all the time, or that I never yell in frustration when I find some darn cur has torn a hole in my favorite blanket. It doesn’t mean that I’m always quick with a compliment. In fact, I’m not. That shirt is awful.

So what does it mean? It refers to my belief that it is possible–and not hard!–to educate all animals by controlling the consequences of their behaviors in a way that will encourage the kinds of behavior you want. The “positive” refers to the fact that you’re encouraging something by adding to it, rather than taking something away. Positive reinforcement gets us pretty far in life. Getting paid for your work, for instance, is positively reinforcing. Receiving comments on a blog post? Positively reinforcing. Just saying.

This is Thorndike’s Law of Effect: behaviors that are reinforced will become more likely to occur, and behaviors that are not reinforced will become less likely to occur. B.F. Skinner coined the terms negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, negative punishment and positive punishment in the mid-1900s.  Brilliant guy, but not great at branding his ideas. These terms are constantly misused and misunderstood. Behaviorist nerd that I am, it always rankles me. It must be how my mom feels when someone uses “me” as a subject pronoun.

Just the other day, I was telling a Park Slope kennel owner that I was a positive reinforcement trainer and I could see him rolling his eyes. “You see, I just don’t buy that stuff,” he said. “I believe in negative reinforcement.” Then he told me about how he prefers training dogs with a snap of a choke collar or an occasional smack.

Was I upset that he abuses dogs or that he was screwing up the nomenclature? I don’t know. Both? I took a deep breath and told him that these were actually punishment methods. Punishments, I said, decrease the likelihood that behaviors will continue to occur. I attempted to explain that the word that negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement aren’t opposites. “Negative” just means that something is taken away in order to increase the chance that a behavior will increase. You move your car when someone is honking at you and the horn sound goes away (disappearance of sound = negative) and you’ve therefore been reinforced for moving. When people torture each other to get information, that’s also negative reinforcement: Someone finally snitches in order to make something painful stop.

This kennel owner’s methods? Those were just forms of punishment. I tried to tell him as much. He shrugged. “Negative reinforcement sounds better.”

Dear shock-collar dog-smacking kennel guy, this instructional video is for you.

Post publishing note: As a commenter points out, this video actually is a bit off. Taking away something your subject wants (TV) in order to discourage a behavior (getting bad grades) really is an example of “negative punishment” not “negative reinforcement.” “Negative reinforcement” would be if your mother stopped nagging you (took away something bad) when you brought home an A+ report card. The behavior of getting good grades would then have been reinforced. 

More on positive and negative reinforcement:

More on Skinner:

How trained pigeons could’ve won World War II

Operant Conditioning, as explained by the Big Bang Theory


2 Responses

  1. k9mythbuster

    November 6, 2012 11:49 am

    While I love what you are trying to teach, the example in the video is NOT negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is removing something unpleasant or aversive to reward a behavior. A human example is the seat belt buzzer. The buzzer stops when you put the seat belt on – the aversive is removed once the right behavior is performed, increasing the behavior – you will put on your seat belt next time to stop the buzzer. In dog training, an example would be pressure on a choke chain that cuts off the dog’s air supply until the dog sits. The removal of the aversive rewards the sit.

    The video shows negative PUNISHMENT. Removing something pleasant to punish unwanted behavior. She takes away the television to punish the bad grades (although, if the grades don’t actually improve, it’s not really P- because it didn’t have an effect on the behavior)

    R- is the most difficult aspect of the quadrants to explain and many people get it wrong. I love the video, though – it’s so close!


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