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reinforcement theory

Contributor(s): Ivy Wigmore

Reinforcement theory is a psychological principle maintaining that behaviors are shaped by their consequences and that, accordingly, individual behaviors can be changed through rewards and punishments. Reinforcement theory is commonly applied in business and IT in areas including business management, human resources management (HRM), marketing, social media, website and user experience (UX) design and end-user training.

Positive reinforcements involves the use of rewards to reinforce behaviors. Negative reinforcement involves the removal of aversive stimuli to reinforce the target behavior. The use – and perhaps the ineffectiveness -- of negative reinforcement is illustrated by the common HR-related joke, “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

Similarly, positive punishment involves delivery of an aversive stimulus (spanking, for example) and negative punishment is based on the removal of a desired stimulus (taking away a privilege, for example).

In formalized studies, reinforcement is typically delivered according to a schedule as a research control. Delivery might be based on a ratio, so that the subject is rewarded for a given number of demonstrations of the target behavior. Another option is interval-based delivery, in which continued behavior is rewarded periodically after a specific period of time has passed.

Intermittent reinforcement, which involves the delivery of rewards on an occasional and unpredictable basis, tends to promote the continued efforts of a subject for longer periods without a payoff. Slot machine payouts are based on intermittent reinforcement, providing just enough small and medium rewards over time to keep players motivated. Online gambling and internet addictions exhibit the same principle: The individual receives just enough rewards (which might be in the form of wins or entertainment) at sufficiently sustainable intervals, to encourage them to continue.

The behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner was instrumental in the development of many modern ideas about reinforcement theory. According to Skinner, people’s internal needs and drives are not important areas of concern because their current behaviors are based on the consequences of former behaviors and can be similarly altered or manipulated.

This was last updated in September 2016

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