Though positive reinforcement is the basis of applied behavior analysis, negative reinforcement can also be used.
Many people associate negative reinforcement with punishment, but it’s not. It simply involves removing an uncomfortable stimulus as a method of encouraging desired behavior.
What Is Negative Reinforcement?
Negative reinforcement happens when an unwanted stimulus in the environment is taken away because of a person’s behavior. The removal of the stimulus (the negative reinforcement) creates a wanted outcome for the person.
When a child’s behavior causes the removal of a stimulus that they found unpleasant and an impediment to what they wanted to achieve, this is a state of negative reinforcement.
In applied behavior analysis, the “stimulus” is whatever is taken away from the child that was causing them distress. This could be a noise, an object, a smell, or even a person.
For the full effects of negative reinforcement to be felt, once the stimulus is removed, the child must continue to engage in the behavior that led to the favorable outcome when similar situations arise again.
Negative Reinforcement in ABA Therapy
To understand the use of negative reinforcement during ABA therapy, it might help to think of “negative” in terms of the mathematical principle of subtracting (as opposed to the qualitative judgment of “negative” to mean something bad). Someone who takes a shower to remove body odor is subtracting their bad smell. In ABA terms, taking the shower was “negatively reinforced” by taking away (or subtracting) the bad smell. This is negative reinforcement.
Another example of negative reinforcement includes turning off a light at night (the light is subtracted), which leads to better sleep. Subsequently, a person will be more inclined to turn the light off the next time they want to sleep.
There is nothing inherently wrong or bad about negative reinforcement. It is a part of everyday life, for neurodiverse and neurotypical people alike.
Negative reinforcement is not the opposite of positive reinforcement. While positive reinforcement is often thought of in terms of giving a client a reward for successfully accomplishing a task or demonstrating desirable behavior, negative reinforcement can also provide a reward by removing an unwanted stimulus from the environment.
Negative vs. Positive Reinforcement
Compared to negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement is when a stimulus that is not already in the environment is added when a person displays an improvement in their behavior. The understanding is that the addition of the stimulus will encourage the client to similarly change their behavior when the opportunity to do so presents itself in the future.
Ultimately, positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement in ABA therapy are like two sides of the same coin. They both reward the child, either by giving them something desirable or by removing something undesirable, to encourage the child to continue to improve their behavior.
When using negative reinforcement in applied behavior analysis, the outcome (the consequence) is favorable to the client. If the client reacts poorly to the removal of the stimulus, such that the desired behavior does not happen, then this is not an example of negative reinforcement.
Using Negative Reinforcement Badly
A poor execution of negative reinforcement in therapy occurs when a child engages in undesirable behavior and gets something out of it. The misunderstanding is based on how it is possible to conflate the “negative” in the term “negative response” with bad behavior.
An example is a child throwing a tantrum because they do not get candy when they want it, and the parent giving the child the candy to stop the behavior. While the client’s behavior could be seen as negative, in the literal sense, this is not an example of negative reinforcement. The behavior was, in fact, positively reinforced because the client got the candy after all.
In this example, it is the parent’s behavior that was negatively reinforced and not the child’s behavior. The parent obviously wanted the tantrum to stop. Here, the tantrum is an aversive stimulus, the catalyst in the environment causing psychological discomfort or distress.
The parent gave the child the candy, which succeeded in stopping the tantrum (removing the aversive stimulus). From the parent’s perspective, the aversive stimulus was removed, leading to a more desirable state. Even though it would appear that the child was getting away with bad behavior, it is actually the parent’s behavior that was negatively reinforced.
An ABA therapist will assess the antecedents, behaviors, and consequences of the child and parents, to know how to help the parents (or caregivers) avoid falling into the trap of negatively reinforcing their own unhelpful behavior.
Removing the Aversive Stimulus
Negative reinforcement can be used during ABA therapy by removing the aversive stimulus.
For example, a child with autism may be afraid of loud hand dryers in a public restroom, becoming distressed and disruptive when they hear one. If the child’s parents stop using public restrooms altogether, to avoid this situation, they unwittingly reinforce the unwanted behavior.
However, a therapist might see an opportunity to provide the child with noise-cancelling headphones that they can wear when using public restrooms. This is a more effective form of negative reinforcement because it removes the aversive stimulus.
When using negative reinforcement during ABA therapy, the child’s behavior that led to the reinforcement should be encouraged or strengthened by the therapist and the rest of the caregiving team. The actual reinforcement takes place when there is a likely increase in the future frequency of the behavior when an aversive stimulus is successfully managed.
Tangible & Intangible Negative Reinforcement
What makes for good negative reinforcement in ABA therapy? Tangible items, such as toys, tablet devices, or confections, are most commonly used by therapists based on their assessments of what motivates the child the most.
Tangible rewards may show a lot of potential in leading to desired behavior, but this will not be true for all children, and it will not be true for all children in all situations. Some may prefer to rest, listen to music or certain sounds, or enjoy other non-tangible rewards. Again, it is incumbent on the therapist to observe the child’s ABCs, and then closely match the schedules of reinforcement with the child’s performance and what can be quickly provided.
In 1971, researchers determined that social reinforcement (praise and encouragement) succeeded in improving the academic performance of struggling students when the social reinforcement came after the students were given tangible reinforcements. Other research has also suggested that there is effectiveness in combining tangible reinforcement with social reinforcement.
Planning for Negative Reinforcement
Similar to positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement can be applied inadvertently, which will cause unwanted behaviors to be reinforced. With this in mind, an ABA therapist should keep in mind that negative reinforcement often happens without any planning.
In the course of everyday events, reinforcement naturally (and sometimes instinctively) follows behavior, which leads to increased likelihood that the behavior will happen again. Sometimes, it comes down to the therapist’s intentions and judgments about which behaviors receive negative reinforcement.
For that reason, the use of negative reinforcement in ABA therapy needs to be carefully planned. Poor use of negative reinforcement can encourage undesirable behavior (as seen in the examples above). It is very important for a therapist to have an understanding of the proper behaviors that need to be reinforced. Without such a plan, the child may default to maladaptive behavior.
To make sure this does not happen, the ABA therapist needs to assess the data they have, culled from their observations of the antecedent-behavior-consequence model as well as preference assessment and other systems at work. The idea behind this is to identify the patterns that both prompt and suppress the targeted behaviors. It is from this work that an intervention plan can be drafted.
What Is Negative Reinforcement? Definition, 3 Types, and Examples. (December 2019). Psych Central.
Neural Mechanisms of Negative Reinforcement In Children and Adolescents With Autism Spectrum Disorders. (March 2015). Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders.
Reinforcement: Positive Versus Negative. Vanderbilt University.
Behavior Modification. (2008). Handbook of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 2. Children And Adolescents.
Systematic Reinforcement: Academic Performance of Underachieving Students. (Winter 1971). Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.