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Overview of Reinforcement Theory      

Law of Effect

Quantitative Law of Effect

Types of Reinforcement

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement


Reinforcement and its Role in Undesirable Behavior: Substance and/or Alcohol Abuse

Negative Punishment, Extinction, and Positive Punishment

Positive Punishment


Negative Punishment

Guidelines to Ensure Effective Workplace Punishment

Ramifications of Ineffective and Inappropriate Punishment

Schedules of Reinforcement

The Differences Between Reinforcement and Punishment


Research on Reinforcement Theory

Strengths and Weaknesses of Reinforcement Theory

Application of Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace

Useful Tools for Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace

Alternatives to Reinforcement Theory



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Overview of Reinforcement Theory 

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner derived the reinforcement theory, one of the oldest theories of motivation, as a way to explain behavior and why we do what we do. The theory may also be known as Behaviorism, or Operant Conditioning, which is still commonly taught in psychology today. The theory states that "an individual’s behavior is a function of its consequences" (Management Study Guide, 2013). Behaviorism evolved out of frustration with the introspective techniques of humanism and psychoanalysis, as some researchers were dissatisfied with the lack of directly observable phenomena that could be measured and experimented with. In their opinion, it would make the discipline of Psychology more "scientific" and on par with the core sciences. These researchers turned to exploring only the behaviors that could be observed and measured, and away from the mysterious workings of the mind (Funder, 2010). The science of psychology that is often associated with the current era may be considered inadmissible to those that follow Skinner’s beliefs.  Psychology has frequently been associated with the human mind and the evolution of cognitive awareness, causing Skinner to move in a different direction. By applying his thoughts on adjusting motivation through various stimuli, industries such as business, government, education, prisons, and mental institutions can gain a broader understanding of human behavior. "In understanding why any organism behaves the way it does, Skinner saw no place for dwelling on a person’s intentions or goals” (Banaji, 2011). For him, it was outward behavior and its environment that mattered. His most important contribution to psychological science was the concept of reinforcement, formalized in his principles of operant conditioning. This was in contrast to Ivan Pavlov’s principles of classical conditioning, which along with J.B. Watson’s extreme environmentalism, strongly influenced his own thinking.

Reinforcement theory has been used in many areas of study to include animal training, raising children, and motivating employees in the workplace. Reinforcement theories focus on observable behavior rather than needs theories that focus on personal states. Reinforcement theory is a form of operant conditioning and focuses on the environmental factors that contribute to shaping behavior. Simply put, reinforcement theory claims that stimuli are used to shape behaviors. There are four primary approaches to reinforcement theory: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment, which will be covered in a later paragraph. By analyzing the various components of the Law of Effect and the primary approaches, we can achieve desired results, otherwise known as consequences,  through its application within the workplace.

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Law of Effect 

Economists and psychologists commonly assume that behavior is shaped by its consequences, known as the Law of Effect. Psychologists understand that animals try different behaviors, assess the effects, and respond by doing more of the things that result in positive results versus negative. This states that people engage in behaviors that have pleasant outcomes and avoid behaviors that result in unpleasant outcomes. (Thorndike, 1913). From this view, the important consequence of a behavior is the information it provides about behavioral outcomes. The effect of the information is to alter policy (Gallistel, 1998).

In 1911, American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike (1874-1949), published the Law of Effect, a principle of learning that states “responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation.”  In his animal learning studies, Thorndike placed hungry cats inside “puzzle boxes.”  Once inside the box, a cat was able to gain access to food only if it was able to use the latch to get out of the box.  Through trial and error, the cat was able to learn the contingency between its behavior and the reward. Thorndike also noticed that with more training, the cats managed to gain access to food in increasingly less time. The figure below exhibits the puzzle box, in which a graph "demonstrates the general decreasing trend of the cat's response times with each successive trial".


As an example, if the cat would press a bar or pull on a string, a door would open allowing the cat to escape. Once the cat was outside of the box, it would find some food in close proximity, thereby reinforcing the response (Thorndike, 1911).  Thorndike continually repeated this activity over and over again to formulate his theory and solidify his results. He also discovered that the speed at which the cats escaped from the box increased with each successful attempt, proving that, not only did the learned behavior become reinforced, but the desire for reward motivated the performance.  Thorndike formulated the Law of Effect from the test studies which can be summarized as "responses that produce satisfaction will be more likely to recur and thus be strengthened" (Buskist & Davis, 2008).

"Success brings with it satisfaction, and along with it, a strengthening of the relation of the experiences. Failure increases dissatisfaction, and the absence of the relation among the experiences weakens them. Thus, we may compare success to a reward or failure to a punishment and the desire to repeat success or avoid failure as the inevitable antecedents" (Sharma & Sharma, 2003).

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Quantitative Law of Effect

R. J. Herrnstein, a student of B.F. Skinner, published a paper (1970) in which he described the Quantitative Law of Effect. The Quantitative Law of Effect is one of the fundamental principles of the reinforcement theory, and is defined as a hyperbolic rate equation which defines the rate of behavior (R) as a function of the reinforcement (r), given by the equation R= (k*r) /(r + re), where the constant (k) is the asymptote of the hyperbola, and the constant (re) determines how fast the function reaches the asymptote. For clarification, an asymptote is a line that a function approaches ever so closely, but never touches.The value of constant (k) depends on the amount of effort that the behavior requires, and the value of (re) depends on other sources of reinforcement in the environment (Herrnstein, 1970).

According to the law, the rate of a particular behavior depends both on its own reinforcement rate and on the reinforcement rate of other behaviors. From this statement, it follows that operants (i.e. target behaviors such as rat’s lever-pressing) can be weakened by increasing the reinforcement earned for alternative behaviors.

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Types of Reinforcement

According to Huitt & Hummel (1997), four methods are employed in operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.  The table below is derived from the table created by Huitt & Hummel (1997): 

                                                                                          Operant Conditioning

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Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement theory provides two methods of increasing desirable behaviors.  One is positive reinforcement and the other is negative reinforcement

To avoid any confusion we can think of positive as a plus sign (+) and negative as minus sign (-).  In other words:

Positive Reinforcement:  Give (+) what individuals like when they have performed the desired behavior (Griggs, 2009).

Negative Reinforcement:  Remove (-) what individuals do not like when they have performed the desired behavior (Griggs, 2009).

In the case of negative reinforcement, it is important to remember that negative does not mean "bad", just the removal of an unpleasant stimulus. Positive and negative have similar connotations in the application of punishment.

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Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is "Any pleasant or desirable consequences that follows a response and increases the possibility that the response will be repeated" (Wood, Wood, & Boyd, 2005). 

Positive reinforcement uses the reward system. The reward system is a collection of brain structures which attempt to regulate and control behavior by inducing pleasurable effects. Some examples of rewards in the workplace are monetary bonuses, promotions, praise, paid holiday leave, and attention. In educational settings the rewards can include food, verbal praise, or a preferred item (such as a toy or a break on a swing). Giving rewards may not result in the desired effect or behavior, but the reward must stimulate the person to produce the desired behavior to be positive reinforcement. This means that the reinforcement should be highly motivating to the individual. For example, in the workplace a paycheck or a bonus may be a highly motivating factor for many people, but not necessarily all.

B.F. Skinner introduced people to positive reinforcement by conducting experiments on animals, most notably his rat experiment. Skinner designed a box with a lever inside that released food when pressed. He placed a hungry rat into the box to see if the rat could figure out how to get to the food. When the rat was first placed into the box, it fumbled around until it inadvertently hit the lever and the food was produced. Through several trials, the rat learned to go straight for the lever to produce the food when it was hungry. Therefore, B.F. Skinner tested positive reinforcement, and concluded it does produce desired behaviors (McLeod, 2007).

The following clip from CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" television show displays and explains the aspects of positive reinforcement, and a quick example of positive punishment.


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Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is a "psychological reinforcement by the removal of an unpleasant stimulus when a desired response occurs" (Negative Reinforcement, n.d.).



Negative reinforcement uses the reward system. A person is rewarded for desired behavior by having something unpleasant removed. This removal is the reward. For example, in the workplace a person may find it undesirable to be monitored closely. If a person is doing their job to the highest standard, they may not be monitored as closely anymore. This removal of the monitoring is the reward for consistently doing their job well.  Another example of negative reinforcement could be a new employee at a fast food chain having to clean the public bathrooms as part of their job as a new hire.  By performing this and other tasks well, eventually this unpleasant task could be removed as a way to keep this person interested and motivated to do well as they advance in job title and salary. 

B.F. Skinner used the rat to demonstrate positive reinforcement, but he also utilized the same test to prove negative reinforcement. Skinner placed an electric current inside the box which was an unpleasant stimulus for the rat. The rat inadvertently hit the lever and learned that this turned the electric current off. Through several trials, the rat learned that if it went straight to the lever, it would turn off the current (McLeod, 2007).

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Avoidance Learning

Avoidance learning acts similarly to negative reinforcement, except "the desired behavior serves to prevent the onset of a noxious stimulus, or in a variant, terminates such a stimulus that already exists" (Miner, 2007). Criticism from a supervisor could serve as a noxious stimulus. While avoidance learning can serve to be effective in some cases, positive reinforcement is often preferred (Miner, 2007). Avoidance learning can be seen in the workplace when an employee exhibits the desired behavior in an effort to avoid the consequence, such as being criticized by one's supervisor.

When looking at avoidance learning, one can easily see that the main goal is to understand what the unpleasant stimulus is and then it can be avoided. When an employee knows they will be terminated for having too many unexcused absences, they will make sure to avoid being absent without an excuse.  In this scenario, when an employee brings in an excuse slip for an absence, the negative consequence is also avoided (PSU WC, L. 3, p. 4).



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Reinforcement and its Role in Undesirable Behavior: Substance and/or Alcohol Abuse



Reinforcement can also be a way to "reward" and reproduce undesirable behaviors.  In looking at these two types of reinforcement in another way, "these terms refer to psychological processes that cause certain behaviors to be repeated" and is not just a system of rewards  (Addiction Intervention, 2013).  People who abuse alcohol and/or substances do not become addicts very quickly.  Addiction usually occurs over a long period of time and after extensive abuse of their bodies.  How do they get to be this way?  They have reinforced their behaviors. 

Positive reinforcement of substance abuse:  "taking a drug or consuming alcohol brings a feeling of pleasure or euphoria, however brief"  (Addiction Intervention 2013).

Negative reinforcement of substance abuse:  The substance causes unwanted feelings to go away.  It is a type of avoidance.  "For example, some people repeatedly self-medicate with prescription drugs, alcohol or other substances because it removes unpleasant feelings of stress or anxiety"  (Addiction Intervention 2013).

Treatment of this kind of abuse can involve positive and negative reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement in substance abuse treatment:  "Allow the patient to encounter the stressor, or literally face their fears, and then not permit them to resort to their escape strategy – but instead find new ways to cope"  (Addiction Intervention 2013).

Negative reinforcement in substance abuse treatment:  The removal of a negative stimulus such as chastisement from family members would constitute as negative reinforcement.  "Therapists can try eliminating the stressful situation that causes the patient to need to escape. This may mean counseling family members on how to be a positive influence on their loved ones, instead of berating them and causing more stress"  (Addiction Intervention 2013).

Positive and Negative reinforcement can play a role in all behavior, not just in working environment behavior.  It can replicate unwanted behavior as well as be a key in treatment of those behaviors. 

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Negative Punishment, Extinction, and Positive Punishment

Reinforcement theory provides two methods of eliminating undesirable behaviors.  One is negative punishment and the other is positive punishment

"Punishment creates a set of conditions which are designed to eliminate behaviour" (Burns, 1995).

Again, to avoid any confusion we can think of positive as a plus sign (+) and negative as a minus sign (-).  In other words:

Positive Punishment: Give (+) individuals what they do not like when they have performed the undesired behavior (Griggs, 2009). Positive punishment is what we think of when we think of a "punishment".

Negative Punishment: Remove (-) what individuals like when they have performed the undesired behavior (Griggs, 2009).

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Positive Punishment

The type of punishment most people are familiar with is positive punishment. Positive punishment is easier for people to identify because it is common in society. It is usually called “punishment” or “punishment by application” (D. Hockenbury & S. Hockenbury, 2010). Positive punishment occurs when a stimulus is presented following an undesired behavior and subsequent occurrences of the undesired behavior are reduced or eliminated (Cheney & Pierce, 2004). Using the example of a chatty co-worker, the employee could be orally reprimanded for spending too much time conversing with co-workers. It is important to realize that even though consequences such as suspension, demotions, etc. induce dislike, they do not qualify as punishments unless they lessen or eliminate the undesired behavior.  

Positive punishment is effective in eliminating undesired behaviors but it does have limitations. Positive punishment has been found to be more effective when the stimulus is added immediately following the undesired behavior as opposed to applying delayed stimulus. Another factor is consistent application of a stimulus following an undesired behavior, this is more effective than occasional application of a stimulus (Cheney & Pierce, 2004). The greatest drawback is that positive punishment fails to teach desirable behaviors.  Furthermore, positive punishment can produce undesirable emotional reactions such as passivity, fear, anxiety, or hostility (Skinner, 1974; as cited in Cheney & Pierce, 2004).

Punishment is seen as more acceptable than positive reinforcement because "people believe they are free to choose to behave in responsible ways to avoid punishment" (Maag, 2001). Our societal values of independence, and a tendency to view the world in terms of being punished for bad or immoral behavior tend to predispose us to treat inappropriate behaviors with punishment, rather than focusing on the value of positive reinforcement for doing the right thing.

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Extinction, on the other hand, involves withholding the pleasing stimulus that is maintaining the unwanted behavior each time the behavior occurs. This happens until the behavior gradually decreases to zero or the desired level (M. Sundel & S. Sundel, 2005). Using the above example of the disruptive employee, his supervisor instructs his co-workers to ignore his non work-related comments and not respond to them.  The response from his co-workers is the pleasing stimulus maintaining his behavior.  Without it, the employee no longer chats about non work-related business and becomes more productive as a result. It is important to remember that extinction is not permanent and that the behavior may return after the extinction process is complete, a process called spontaneous recovery (Coon, 2006).

Skinner found that non-reinforcement of behavior to achieve extinction is much less effective than reinforcement of behavior that is continuous. This is due to the fact that any intermittent reinforcement of the unwanted behavior can lead to recurrence. "This is why many of our student's undesirable behaviors are so difficult to stop. We might be able to resist a child's nagging most of the time, but if we yield every once in a while, the child will persist with it" (Crain, 2004). Often times, behavior not modified is behavior accepted.

Extinction may decrease the frequency of desirable behavior as well.  If good behavior is consistently ignored, it may cease, just as in the elimination of undesirable behavior (Tosi, Mero & Rizzo, 2001).  For example, an employee regularly stays late at work to assist the next shift in catching up after a very busy day.  No praise or thanks is ever given to the employee by her co-workers or supervisor, so eventually she leaves work on time and stops assisting the next shift.  Ignoring her good behavior caused its extinction (Tosi et al., 2001). Note that because good behavior may also be eliminated, "managers should be sensitive to the wide array of possibilities of extinction in the workplace" (p. 143).

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Negative Punishment

Negative punishment involves removing a pleasing stimulus other than the one maintaining the behavior in order to decrease the frequency of the behavior. Normally, the behavior decreases immediately (M. Sundel & S. Sundel, 2005).  An example of negative punishment might be an office worker who disrupts his co-workers by constantly chatting about non work-related subjects.  His co-workers usually respond to him and are polite, which is the pleasing stimulus maintaining his disruptive behavior.  His supervisor informs him that, if he remains disruptive, he will not receive his yearly pay raise.  Another form of negative punishment could be the removal of his desk from his co-workers and placement in a more isolated area.  The removal of the pay raise and the loss of the prime location in the office space are the negative punishment in his example because they are pleasing stimuli, but not the one directly maintaining his behavior (M. Sundel & S. Sundel, 2005).  According to D. Hockenbury and S. Hockenbury (2010), negative punishment may also be referred to as punishment by removal.

The following clip from the movie Office Space demonstrates an example of negative punishment.

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Guidelines to ensure effective workplace punishment:

Act swiftly:  The closer the disciplinary action is to the actual offense, the more likely it is that the employee will associate the punishment with the offense or unwanted behavior and not the dispenser of the punishment (Robbins, Odendaal, & Roodt, 2009).

Be consistent:  Punishment must be doled out consistently between employees and also within individuals.  If an employee is punished for lateness, he or she must be punished for each late occurrence thereafter.  If punishments are not consistent, rules will lose impact, there may be a decline in morale, and employees may question the competence of the dispenser of the punishment.  It is reasonable, however, to consider any mitigating factors in each punishment situation, such as past history and performance.  Punishment may be adjusted in those situations, provided the rationale is made abundantly clear to all concerned (Robbins et al., 2009).

Suggest alternative behaviors:  It is important to clearly explain the reasons for the punishment and offer the employee alternative good behaviors.  Disciplining an employee for an undesirable behavior only makes clear to him or her, what not to do.  Suggesting alternatives will educate the employee on what is the preferred behavior and make it more likely that the behavior will be changed to one that is more desirable (Robbins et al., 2009).

Utilize the five to one rule:  According to Baumeister, Bratslavsky, Finkenauer and Vohs (2001), because bad interactions are more powerful emotionally than good interactions, it is important to balance the good and bad by more frequently using positive reinforcement rather than punishment.  A good ratio is five enjoyable interactions to one disagreeable interaction (Baumeister et al., 2001).

Punish in private and praise in public:  Private punishment is more likely to be seen as constructive, and public punishment is more likely to cause embarrassment and negative effects if done in front of one's peers (Hellriegel & Slocum Jr., 2007).

Punish and Reward.  Desirable behaviors should be rewarded and undesirable behaviors should be punished (Redmond, 2010).

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Ramifications of Ineffective and Inappropriate Punishment

When punishing, it is imperative to use caution in following the rules to apply punishment effectively.  The following are five dangers of punishment (Funder, 2007).

Punishment stirs emotion: The punisher may actually derive a great deal of excitement and satisfaction, thereby fueling further aggressive behaviors.  In many instances, punishers can become completely blind without realizing the severity of their error in losing self-control, thereby turning the punishment into abuse.  Conversely, high levels of fear, hate, desire to escape and self-contempt can arise in the punished, all causing humiliation, discomfort and pain.  Many times because of this, the punished fails to learn any lesson at all from the punishment because of their need to escape and the pain involved with the specific punishing behavior.

Punishing consistently is challenging: Applying punishments effectively can be a very difficult task because the mood of the punisher changes with every circumstance, thereby leaving the possibility for inconsistency with punishments.  Inconsistency is one of the main reasons why punishment can prove to be very ineffective.  The same type of punishments must be adhered to on all counts.  To punish one person one way and another differently will produce unproductive results, particularly in work settings.

Judging the level of severity is a difficult task: Perceptions of a person being punished can be vastly different than the person actually doing the punishing.  For example, being reprimanded by your boss can be a very humiliating experience beyond what they could possibly know.  Issues such as psychological distress and the breaking down of confidence levels can create ill feelings, misunderstandings and, even worse, a desire for revenge.

Punishment can be an education in power: Specifically with children, but also in work settings, punishments can cause less powerful people to want to strive to become "powerful" by observing the example they are shown in receiving punishments.  For example, abused children oftentimes grow up and play out their parents same abusive behavior (Hemenway, Solnick, & Carter, 1994; Widom, 1989). In a work environment, an angered employee may attempt a mutiny on their boss to drive them out of their position.

Punishment can produce a need for concealment: Particularly in an office setting where the boss utilizes punishment frequently, employees tends to withdraw, keep silent and avoid effective communication between each other due to the need of avoiding the conflict of punishment.  This causes the boss to lose sight of the dynamics of his employees and office and alienates employee from feeling safe to work and express themselves to the best of their ability.

Funder (2007) notes that rewards can have the opposite effect.  A good worker will always seek to impress the boss by presenting at every opportunity their positive actions, for which the boss reciprocates. Through this communication he finds himself more in tune with the inner workings of his office.  This behavior is to be noted in children as well. A child who expects reward will consistently attempt to impress their parents with their good behaviors, whereas a child who is constantly under attack and living in fear of punishment will attempt to sever communication as much as possible with the punisher.  In the words of Funder, "punishment works great if you apply correctly -- but to apply it correctly, it helps to be a genius and a saint" (Funder, 2007, p.494).


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Schedules of Reinforcement

A schedule of reinforcement determines when and how often reinforcement of a behavior is given.  Schedules of reinforcement play an important role in the learning process of operant conditioning since the speed and strength of the response can be significantly impacted by when and how often a behavior is reinforced (Van Wagner, 2010b).  Two types of reinforcement schedules are:  continuous reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement.

Continuous reinforcement is when a desired behavior is reinforced each and every time it is displayed.  This type of reinforcement schedule should be “used during the initial stages of learning in order to create a strong association between the behavior and the response” (Van Wagner, 2010b). Continuous reinforcement will not generate enduring changes in behavior, once the rewards are withdrawn, the desired behavior will become extinct. A good example of continuous behavior is the process of using a vending machine.  For example, a soda machine will give a soda every time you feed it money.  Every so often you may not receive the soda and you are likely to try only a few more times.  The likelihood that you will continuously keep adding money when not receiving any reward is extremely low so this behavior is often stopped very quickly (Durell, 2000).


Intermittent reinforcement is when a desired behavior is reinforced only occasionally when it is displayed.  In this type of reinforcement schedule behaviors are obtained more gradually, however the behaviors are more enduring (defying extinction).  Intermittent schedules are based either on time (interval schedules) or frequency (ratio schedules) (Huitt & Hummel, 1997).  Ratio reinforcement is the reinforcement of a desired behavior after a number of occurrences, while interval reinforcement is the reinforcement of a desired behavior after a period of time.  Consequently, four types of intermittent reinforcement schedules exist:  fixed interval schedules, variable interval schedules, fixed ratio schedules and variable ratio schedules.  

Fixed Interval Schedules: A reinforcement of appropriate behavior that is delivered after a specified interval of time has elapsed (Smith, 2010). Heffner offers an appropriate example of an employee performance review for a raise every year and not in between (Heffner, 2001). As the reinforcement is delivered, only after a specified amount of time has passed do we find that this reinforcement type of schedule tends to produce a scalloping effect between intervals as displayed in the figure example below (Huitt & Hummel, 1997).


Only directly before the interval time has elapsed is the desired behavior displayed so as to look good when the performance review comes around (Heffner, 2001). After the review, a dramatic drop-off of behavior immediately after reinforcement occurs (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). The fixed interval schedule is a form of continuous schedule and works well for punishment or learning a new behavior (Heffner, 2001).

Variable Interval Schedules: This is a reinforcement of appropriate behavior that is delivered after an average interval of time has elapsed (Smith, 2010). Once the behavior has been reinforced, a new interval of time, either shorter or longer, is specified with the sum total of interval times equaling the average (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). This is best expressed in the example of a corporate random drug testing policy. The power of variable reinforcement lies in the fact that individuals do not know exactly when it is coming. The policy may dictate that a random drug screening will be conducted every 3 months or so, however because it is random the screening may happen sooner at 2 months or later at 4 months, with the average interval time equaling around 3 months. Because of the variable nature of this schedule the scalloping effect between intervals is reduced (Huitt & Hummel, 1997).


As shown in the figure above the variable interval schedule tends to consistently produce more appropriate behaviors (Heffner, 2001).  This schedule of reinforcement is best used when fading out a fixed interval schedule or reinforcing already established behaviors (Smith, 2010).

Fixed Ratio Schedules: A reinforcement of a desired behavior occurs only after a specified number of actions have been performed (ex: Factory employees who are paid on piecework or a fixed “piece rate” for every piece produced or performance-related pay).  Because the fixed ratio schedule is methodical, it produces a high, steady rate of response.  The fixed ratio schedule is also a form of continuous schedule and works well for punishment or learning a new behavior (Heffner, 2001).


(Huitt & Hummel, 1997)

Variable Ratio Schedules:  A reinforcement of a desired behavior occurs after a variable number of actions have been performed (ex: Employees who contribute to a lottery pot, a various number of tickets will win a various amount of money, which is put back into the pot for the next week).  The number of behaviors required to obtain the reward changes. The variable rate schedules tend to be more effective than fixed ratio schedules, because they generate a higher rate of response and resist extinction (Redmond, 2010).


(Huitt & Hummel, 1997)


                                                                                                                                (Woods, Woods, & Boyd, 2005)


The chart below is a recording of response rates of the four reinforcement schedules (Huitt & Hummel, 1997).  The rates of responses are recorded on a device created by Skinner, called the “cumulative recorder” (Van Wagner, 2010a).

                              A chart demonstrating the different response rate of the four simple schedules of reinforcement, each hatch mark designates a reinforcer being given (Huitt & Hummel, 1997).

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Differences Between Reinforcement and Punishment

 This educational and amusing video demonstrates examples of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.

(Lisasgar3461, 2011)

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Skinner developed a method of shaping or “method of successive approximations” to provide guidance on acquiring more complex types of behaviors.  Shaping with successive approximations is used to elicit a behavior that has never been displayed, or rarely occurs, by building the desired behavior progressively and rewarding each improvement on the behavior until the desired behavior is reached.  According to M. Sundel and S. Sundel (2005), the following steps must be taken to shape a behavior:

  • Specify the desired response
  • Specify the positive reinforcer(s) to be used
  • Specify initial and intermediate responses
  • Reinforce the initial response each time it occurs and withhold reinforcement from other responses until the initial response is performed consistently
  • Shift the criterion for reinforcement from the initial response to an intermediate response
  • Reinforce the intermediate response until it is performed consistently, then shift the criterion for reinforcement gradually to other intermediate responses that are increasingly similar to the desired response
  • Reinforce the desired response when it is preformed

An example of shaping is teaching a child sign language. The desired response would be for the child to learn how to sign the word "candy." The positive reinforcer in this case would be candy. It would not make sense to use bubbles as a reinforcer, because they are not requesting bubbles, they are requesting candy. The sign for candy is pointing one's left index finger, touching their index finger to the left cheek, and twisting it. The initial response in this example could be to just point the left finger. Every time this is done the child would be reinforced. Once this is done consistently, the intermediate response could be used. The intermediate response could be to point their finger and touch their cheek. Every time this is done it would be reinforced. Just pointing their finger would no longer be an acceptable response, and would no longer be reinforced. Once the intermediate response is consistent, the desired response would be reinforced. The desired response in this case would be the accurate sign of candy. This is an example of how shaping can be used.

Another example involves Skinner and his students at Harvard University. The story is legendary albeit anecdotal: Skinner's students decided to try out the shaping technique on Skinner himself by making him give his lectures from the door, with one foot in the hallway instead of from the podium. When Skinner was lecturing from the podium, they pretended to be disinterested by looking bored and shuffling their feet. As soon as the instructor took one step away from the podium, they pretended to pay attention and showed keen interest in the lecture. When Skinner became conditioned to lecturing one step away from the podium, students raised the criterion for their attention to two steps away from the podium. Eventually, by raising the criteria, each time further and further away from the podium, they were able to make Skinner give his lectures from the door, with one foot in the hallway. He would occasionally run to the podium to look at his notes and then return to the door to continue his lecture. When one of his colleagues asked him why he was lecturing from the door, Skinner replied:  "Don't you know, the light is much better in the doorway." This example can serve to illustrate the effectiveness of behaviorism as well as its somewhat manipulative nature (Funder, 2010).

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Research on Reinforcement Theory

Research on Reinforcement Theory, like any other research, must be conducted using rigorous methods (Redmond, 2010).  According to Stangor (2007), the set of assumptions, rules, and procedures that scientists use to conduct research is called the scientific method. The scientific method increases objectivity by placing the data under the scrutiny of fellow scientists and informs them of the methods used to collect the data. This allows other scientists to make their own conclusions about the data and even ask new questions that inspire new research, thus building on the accumulated knowledge of the specific phenomena/subject (Stangor, 2007).

One interesting contemporary example of Reinforcement Theory, in real life action, comes from an article by Richard Burger (2009) entitled, "The Marvelous Benefits of Positive and Negative Reinforcement". The example took place in a college psychology class where most of the students had decided to test the principles of reinforcement on their own professor. The students had noticed that the professor had the annoying and distracting habit of pacing back and forth in the front of the classroom during his lectures. Using the principles of Reinforcement Theory, they set out to end this habit. To do this, the students who were in on the experiment sat in the first two or three rows of the classroom as the lecture began. When the professor stood in the center of the classroom, the students in the experiment would act as though they were immensely involved in the lecture, eyes locked in. When the professor would wander off center, they acted disinterested and uninvolved.  A quarter of the way through the semester the professor's habit was gone, and he lectured only in the center of the classroom.

Reinforcement Theory was clearly in action in this example. As the professor wandered to the sides of the room, he was punished by students who became disinterested in his lecture. This was negative punishment.  As he made his way back to the center of the room, where the students wanted him to stay, he was rewarded by the students becoming involved and interested, or positive reinforcement. Whether the professor knew it or not, he was becoming conditioned, down to extinction*, to standing in the front of the room by the rewards and punishments the students gave him.

In a study by Del Chiaro (2006), the use of verbal positive reinforcement as a means of improving employee job satisfaction was examined. Five supervisors were trained in the use of verbal positive reinforcement. The supervisor's employees then completed job satisfaction surveys following job training during a baseline, intervention, and post-test phase (Del Chiaro, 2006).

Analysis of the results of the employee surveys revealed no clear patterns, but when the means of all the supervisors were added, there was a small increase in job satisfaction ratings. Since the validity data the supervisors submitted was incomplete, the small increase could not be solely attributed to the verbal positive reinforcement (Del Chiaro, 2006). Del Chiaro (2006) concludes that based on the data, "training supervisors in the use of positive verbal reinforcement has no negative effect on employee job satisfaction" (p. 3434).  According to this study, verbal positive reinforcement may increase job satisfaction slightly, but it is more likely that it does not decrease job satisfaction. For example, in one seminal study on reinforcing effects of stimulants in humans, doses of intravenous cocaine were available on an FR 10 schedule (Fischman & Schuster, 1982). Under this schedule, cocaine dose-dependently increased responding relative to placebo, indicating that cocaine functioned as a positive reinforcer (Stoops, 2008).

Raj, Nelson, & Rao (2006) conducted two field experiments in the Business Information Technology Department of a major retail industry to analyze the impact of positive task performance reinforcers. The groups created consisted of employees that either performed complex tasks, or performed relatively simple tasks. Each group was then broken into subgroups for a total of 4 groups. The complex group was reinforced with money and paid leave, or outcome and process feedback. The simple group was reinforced with an informal dress code, or flexible working hours.


There were 36 employees that made up this group and their daily jobs were to develop new software, train employees on the new software, accounting, and auditing. One subgroup (18 employees) received discounts on products sold by the company and were offered paid leave for an additional half day every month. The monetary reinforcer worked well and employee purchases at the retail store almost doubled after the reinforcers were used. The second subgroup (18 employees) of group G1 received outcome and process feedback. Outcome feedback communicated to the employee what their performance level was against the set standard (Raj et al., 2006). Process feedback conveyed to each employee how the performance was executed, and, more importantly, as to what should be done in future to improve their performance (Raj et al., 2006).


This group of employees (40 in number) performed simple task. They were allowed to choose their own reinforcers along as they weren’t monetary. All of the 40 employees were asked to list what would motivate them and make them feel comfortable in their work spot, which in turn would lead to an increase in their performance (Raj et al., 2006). The biggest reinforcer chose was informal dress code. Out of 40 employees, 23 of them selected this reinforcer. They believed it wasn’t necessary to have a dress code because they didn’t deal with the customers. Plus, the formal dress code made them very uncomfortable because of the weather in India.    

The remaining 17 employees that made up G2 viewed working hours that were flexible would be the best reinforcer. They suggested that management allow them to leave early in lean seasons as soon as the task assigned to them for that day was completed (Raj et al., 2006). When the season was at its peak the same workers would work longer hours to ensure all tasks were completed before leaving.


The aggregate behavior of G11 came down from 809.06 during the intervention period to 723.89 during the post intervention period, whereas the aggregate behavior of G12 showed a slight increase 832.72 during the intervention period of 835.39 during his post intervention period (Raj et al., 2006). Money and social recognition are better reinforcers than feedback for less complex tasks according to previous literature. This experiment shows that providing suggestions and information for future improvement has a more enduring benefit than does the use of monetary discounts combined with increased paid leave (Raj et al., 2006).


After the experiment was over G2’s performance decreased after 6 months. However it didn’t return to the baseline frequency level (Raj et al., 2006). Reinforcement was successful, but management needs to come up with new reinforcements to maintain a high level of performance among employees. Besides an increase in job performance there was an increase in satisfaction for G2. Their attitudes were better than before, their willingness to do the jobs assigned to them was higher, and their spirits were high (Raj et al., 2006).         


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Strengths and Weaknesses of Reinforcement Theory

While Reinforcement Theory is widely accepted and deployed universally and the positive effects are commonly known, there are aspects to consider when adopting practices based on this theory.  The basis for this theory is extrinsic motivation which critics say can offend those whose behavior is the subject.  Further evidence reveals that if the target of the behavior modification is aware of the attempt, certain personality types will do everything in their power to skew the results (Gergen, 1973).

The culture needs to be examined to determine if the reward holds value.  What held value twenty years ago, may not hold value today.  Aside from monetary rewards, there are other rewards that have been used as reinforcers such as national pride in the 1940’s and iPads in the early 2000’s that do not hold as much significance today (Gergen, 1973).


Provides clues to motivation.  Unlike Needs Theory of motivation which focused on internal needs, Reinforcement Theory is based on external conditions. Within the workplace, organizational management theorists look to the environment to explain and control people's behavior. Because of this, it may be easier to motivate a group of workers through external factors such as pay raise, promotion, etc (Operant Conditioning, 2006).

Keeps employees involved.  Installing a schedule of reinforcement, such as a variable interval schedule will keep employees on their toes. The employee does not know exactly when a test or performance review is coming, so they cannot afford to work poorly on a given task (Redmond, 2010).

Easily applied in organization.  Reinforcement Theory deals with learned behaviors, therefore it is easy to apply to organizational management. Upon joining a company, workers deal with certain stimuli, responses, and their consequences. Because the behaviors are rewarded or punished, it can be easy to encourage or change workers' responses by manipulating the stimuli (Operant Conditioning, 2006).

Impressive research support.  Reinforcement Theory has had substantial research done in the workplace.  This research has shown impressive results due to its focus on observable behaviors.  Research has been able to empirically prove that Reinforcement works (PSU WC, L3, p. 9).


Disregards internal motivation.  The reinforcement theory only considers behavior and consequences without considering processes of internal motivation or individual differences (Redmond, 2010).

Difficult to identify rewards/punishments.  One main weakness in dealing with Reinforcement Theory is the difficulty to identify rewards or punishments (Booth-Butterfield, 1996). Each human being is different and unique, and Reinforcement Theory has to take this into account. A reward that works for one person may not work for someone else. For example, one person may be lacking self-confidence, so higher praise from a manager may act as a reward. If only a raise in pay were the reward in this situation, the lack of self-confidence would still be evident and an increase in productivity would not be present.

Hard to apply to complicated forms of behavior.  It is not equally reliable in all situations. Using it to impact behaviors involved in complicated task work can be problematic. It is easier to reinforce behavior that applies to a simple task because positive and negative behaviors are easier to keep track of and modify (Redmond, 2010).

Imposes on freewill.  The control and manipulation of rewards in order to change behavior is considered unethical by some (Redmond, 2010).

Effectivity often expires.  Even when an acceptable reward or punishment is met, they often become less meaningful over time (Booth-Butterfield, 1996). The reward of praise seen above, for instance, becomes much less desirable after the person receives a boost in self-confidence. Now, the manager may have to move on to another reward to keep the motivation fresh.

Can be complicated.  The punishment aspect of Reinforcement Theory can be difficult to apply well.  According to Booth-Butterfield (1996), for punishment to be effective, a few guidelines may be required:

                1. The punishment should be immediate.

                2. The punishment should be intense.

                3. The punishment should be unavoidable.

                4. The punishment should be consistent.

In addition, artificial reinforcers often have the effect of reducing the individual’s feeling of self-determination; and this is likely to reduce motivation to engage in similar activities in the future (Glasser, 1990).

Findings and conclusions of behaviorism, to a large extent, are based on research with animals. Thorndike used cats, Pavlov used dogs, and Skinner - pigeons and rats. Many aspects that are important to human beings, such as problem-solving and thinking process, are not addressed by behaviorism. The emphasis is on the environmental stimuli that modify behavior, not on any internal factors that may be present (Funder, 2010).

Despite the initial success that behaviorism enjoyed, some researchers believed that it ignored many important psychological phenomena. One of the first ones was German Psychologist Wolfgang Kohler. Kohler believed that animals, specifically chimpanzees, developed insight regarding their situation, thereby developing an understanding regarding their condition. The emphasis here was the immediacy at which the chimpanzees applied their response, as opposed to a more gradual learned behavior.  This indicated a comprehension and understanding of stimuli and consequences resulting in immediate responses (Kohler, 1925; Gleitman, 1995). Kohler's research on insight applied to behaviorism would eventually lead to the beginnings of social learning theory, as well as some cognitive research (Funder, 2007).

The last guideline - the punishment should be consistent - may be the most important. If the punishment is not consistent, the employee will not associate his or her error with the punishment. When there is consistency, the employee will try to avoid the punishment by fixing their error and proceeding in the fashion the manager would like.



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Application of Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace

When describing his principles of behavior modification, Skinner simply states, “Behavior is determined by its consequences.” Top managers agree that there are numerous issues that can be helped using applied psychology techniques in the working environment (Dowling, 1973). In Conversation with Skinner (1973), he mentions that it is important to identify the desired consequence, which will elicit the desired behavioral response. Ever since Skinner first published his findings in 1969, reinforcement theory has been widely studied and implemented in the industrial setting to decrease the frequency of undesired behavior and increase the frequency of desired behavior. These studies of applied reinforcement theory have proven that the principles of behavior modification can help management with issues ranging from reducing absenteeism and tardiness (Gamboa & Pedalino, 1974), to increasing production in their employees (Nelson, Raj & Rao, 2006).

There are many theories that can be used to assist management in employee motivation. The theory that applies to Reinforcement Theory is called the Behavior Modification Model.

The Behavior Modification Model for Reinforcement Theory (2006) consists of the following four steps:

Specifying the desired behavior as objectively as possible.
A good manager is a good leader and a good leader is goal oriented.  Informing employees of the specific goal in mind, making sure they understand it and keeping them focused on the goal is key to the process.

Measuring the current incidence of desired behavior.
Before a consequence can be enacted, a manager must keep track of each employee's productivity and quality of work. Once this baseline is recorded and behaviors are identified, then the reinforcement can begin. With the baseline recorded, it is easier to observe the benefits of using the Behavioral Modification Model.

Providing behavioral consequences that reinforce desired behavior.
This step involves reinforcing individuals for desired outcomes and providing consequences for undesired outcomes.  For example, individuals that are working above the status quo may get a reward for their hard work and those that are below par will see this and be motivated to work harder.

Determining the effectiveness of the program by systematically assessing behavioral change.
It is important to observe the effectiveness of the applied reinforcement, to determine if reinforcement has been used ineffectively and possibly shed light on a better strategy for next time.

For example, ABC Manufacturing Company found they employed a large number of mothers with small children. When their children got sick the mothers were naturally absent from work. This was affecting productivity within the company.  Rather than taking disciplinary action against these employees, the company sought out a solution to the problem and asked the mothers what could be done to avoid this situation in the future.  The logical solution was to provide a day care for the employees' children. The company assessed the cost effectiveness and decided to give it a try.  As a result, within a few months of the implementation of this daycare program, absenteeism decreased dramatically and there was a noticeable increase in productivity.

Gitman and McDaniel (2009) provide an excellent example of how reinforcement may be used in the workplace.  According to them, hospitals, for a long time, have been offering surgeons the coveted option of scheduling their elective surgeries in the middle of the week, leaving them time to teach, attend conferences, and take long weekends.  This scheduling system is advantageous for the surgeons but problematic for the hospitals due to operating room overcrowding and consequent surgery delays (Gitman & McDaniel, 2009).

A hospital in Springfield, Missouri decided to remedy this scheduling issue by spreading its elective surgeries out over five days, rather than two.  To convince their surgeons to adopt the new schedule and give up the old one and its many perks, the hospital used reinforcement techniques (Gitman & McDaniel, 2009).  Surgeons, who ten percent of the time arrived more than ten minutes late, were fined a part of the price of their surgery (Gitman & McDaniel, 2009). The fines went into a pool which rewarded those surgeons who were on time the most.  As a result of this program, late surgeries dropped from 16 percent to less than one percent over a span of two years (Gitman & McDaniel, 2009). 

In this program, the fine for late surgeries would be considered negative punishment because something desirable (money) was removed (negative) in order to decrease the unwanted behavior (punishment).  The monetary reward for being on time the most would be considered positive reinforcement because something desirable (money) was added (positive) in order to increase the desirable behavior (reinforcement). 

Another example of reinforcement theory in action is the story of Snowfly, a new company that designs, implements and administers workforce incentive programs. Snowfly's approach to employee motivation follows reinforcement theory and involves four themes: immediate recognition, relevant incentive rewards, accountability, and positive reinforcement (Kadlub, 2009). Andy Orr, president of Press One, signed on to use Snowfly for his call center whose clients include USA Today and the New York Times. Andy implemented Snowfly because it aligned with his call-center metrics and offered a way to keep "service levels right in front of our agents” (Kadlub, 2009). Program participants are informed of specific goals they need to achieve and desired behaviors they need to demonstrate. When employees successfully meet their goals, participant accounts are credited with points or game tokens. The 170 call center employees can make an additional $0.20 to $2 an hour as a result of playing Snowfly’s games (Kadlub, 2009). The size or type of award the player wins is left up to chance, much like playing the slots in Las Vegas. Since implementing Snowfly’s incentive program, Press One has seen a 60% reduction in employee turnover (Kadlub, 2009).

Unfortunately the applied reinforcement theory of positive punishment or simply punishment (D. Hockenbury & S. Hockenbury, 2010) has been put into effect much more often than has other forms of reinforcement. (Waird, 1972) To reduce undesirable behaviors it seems almost natural to deliver a punishment rather than offer a reward. This idea to quickly punish to reduce undesirable behavior could conceivably date back to one’s childhood, when students were sent to detention for being disruptive or failing to turn homework on time. However, Waird (1972) offers the notion “When we consistently use punishment to improve performance, it often becomes a reward.” That reward is the fact that you are not being punished for not behaving in the undesirable manner. However the behavior that is being reinforced is reducing undesired behavior instead of actually trying to increase desirable behavior (Waird, 1972).  To increase desirable behavior, and ultimately performance in the working environment, Waird (1972) suggests the implementation of positive reinforcement as it as directly orientated to desired results.

Does Positive Reinforcement Really Work?

Waird (1972) states the answer is:  Yes, positive reinforcement is a critical management skill. In his article "Why Manage Behavior? A Case for Positive Reinforcement" he outlines three considerations for the successful implementation of any positive reinforcement campaign:

          1. Desired levels of performance should be very specifically determined, and once determined, they should be clearly stated. If you do not know how you should be performing, how can you be expected to perform?

          2. Rewards for desired performance should be appropriate to the performance, but above all they should be rewarding. Different people elicit different feelings to different rewards. Ensure that the reward you are providing is actually rewarding to the person that is being rewarded.

          3. Rewards should follow desired performance as closely as possible. The connection must be made between the desired performance and the reward. 

Many people may find it difficult to comprehend increasing desirable behaviors through positive reinforcement systems instead of reducing undesirable behaviors through punishment. However taking the time to positively reinforce people for performing desirable behaviors could lead to more people performing more desirable behaviors, and ultimately lead to a better world (Waird, 1972). 

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Useful Tools for Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace

Organizational Behavior Modification/Management (OB Mod):

OB Mod systematically applies reinforcement theory in workplace applications (Bucklin, Alvero, Dickinson, Austin, and Jackson, 2000).  A very publicized example of OB Mod in organizations was the Emery Air Freight company.  This company had organizational problems such as employees not using the correct sized containers for shipping.  The results were hefty costs in shipping for the company.  As a solution, Emery Air Freight began using OB Mod to increase productivity and reduce costs.  Managers chose to focus on feedback and positive reinforcement.  This allowed managers to specify desired behaviors and praise employees for their improvement and progress.  The effect of implementing OB Mod was apparent after one day.  Performance increases from 45 percent up to 95 percent (standard).  Emery Air Freight saved $3 million in costs alone (Redmond, 2010).

Why organizations use OB Mod:

          1) To increase productivity

          2) To reduce absenteeism

          3) To increase safety behaviors

          4) To reduce lost time due to injuries

               (Redmond, 2010)

Below is a model of OB Mod, also called Social Learning (Luthan and Kreither, 1974):


Ethical Considerations of OB Mod:

While OB Mod can help to motivate a change in behavior within organizations, there are ethical concerns that need to be considered in the use of OB Mod in an organization.  The first ethical consideration is that OB Mod can compromise an individual’s freedom of choice.  The best interest of the employee is not always considered when the reinforcement strategy is implemented.  The OB Mod may benefit the organization by increasing production but may not improve the situation for the employee through personal or professional growth.  The second ethical consideration is that of potential manipulation.  When the desired behaviors are set in place by the managers, the employees may feel as though they have little or no choice but to follow the behaviors suggested by management.  OB Mod, like other behavior motivation techniques, possesses the potential for misuse (Griffin, Moorehead, 2010).


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Alternatives to Reinforcement Theory

Analyst Dan Pink discusses current research on workplace motivation, and alternatives to reinforcement theory on

Mr. Pink suggests that instead of the positive and negative reinforcement, recent research has shown that intrinsic motivators have shown to be more effective motivators. Instead of organizations instituting financial bonuses (carrots) or threats of disciplinary action (sticks), autonomy, mastery, and purpose have shown to improve motivation, quality of performance, while reducing attrition rates in organizations such as Atlassian and Google ("Dan Pink:The puzzle of motivation", 2012).


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