Reinforcement Theory

Have you ever questioned why a short break after every 20 minutes of studying can motivate you to study harder and longer? Let this explanation of reinforcement theory help you answer these questions from a psychological and scientific approach!

Reinforcement Theory Reinforcement Theory

Create learning materials about Reinforcement Theory with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account
Table of contents

    Reinforcement Theory Definition

    What does reinforcement theory mean? In fact, the reinforcement theory definition is simple and intuitive.

    Reinforcement theory states that an individual's behavior is shaped by the behavior's consequences.

    Essentially, the relationship between a behavior and its consequences in reinforcement theory is a cause-effect one.

    For example, you choose to work hard today because you know hard work can get you more money in the future. Likewise, if you can make more money, you will likely desire to work harder.

    Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

    In 1957, B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist at Harvard University, proposed the reinforcement theory of motivation.1

    Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated; behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out or be extinguished.1

    - B. F. Skinner

    Further, reinforcement theory overlooks the internal conditions of individuals, such as their feelings and intrinsic motivation. Rather, reinforcement theory only focuses on the external environment and behaviors associated with individuals.

    What is the core principle of the reinforcement theory of motivation?

    Essentially, the reinforcement theory of motivation is based on the Law of Effect. Accordingly, individuals have several choices of behaviors for any specific situation. However, they will opt for the one that has yielded the most positive and desirable outcomes in the past.

    Also, reinforcement theory involves two important psychologic concepts: operant behaviors and operant conditioning.

    Operant behavior implies behavior that elicits the consequences in reinforcement theory. Operant conditioning implies a learning process that focuses on reinforcement's role in conditioning.

    For example, the manager will give a sales commission when a salesperson successfully closes a deal. Closing a deal is an operant behavior while educating salespersons that they can gain a sales commission for every successful deal is operant conditioning.

    Behavioral Reinforcement Theory

    Reinforcement theory is an important principle in the field of organizational behavior. Accordingly, the theory provides a cohesive reinforcement theory framework, which consists of four aspects of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction.1

    What are the roles of reinforcement and punishment?

    While reinforcement increases the likelihood of the desired behavior, punishment decreases it.

    Positive Reinforcement Theory

    Positive reinforcement is an important operant conditioning in reinforcement theory.

    Positive reinforcement is the act of providing a desirable stimulus to reinforce positive behavior and encourage it to repeat in the future.

    Positive reinforcement can adopt different stimulus types at workplaces, ranging from financial bonuses and compliments to time-off rewards and certificates.

    Accordingly, the more spontaneous the stimulus is, the more likely positive reinforcement will occur.1 For instance, if a team is expecting a pay rise and then receive the exact pay rise, it will not impact future performance as greatly as if the pay rise came out of a sudden.

    What are the benefits of positive reinforcement?

    Research has shown that employees who receive positive reinforcement from their seniors are more unlikely to switch jobs. Further, they are always eager to try their best at work while contributing enthusiastically to their team performance.2

    Negative Reinforcement Theory

    Surprisingly, negative reinforcement does not imply negative and undesirable operant conditioning.

    Negative reinforcement occurs when an unpleasant or negative thing is removed to enhance the likelihood of the desired behavior.

    For example, a marketing manager requires the marketing team to deliver a daily summary report about the company's new project. However, after one month, given the project's good performance, the manager tells the team to deliver the report weekly instead. Thus, the manager has practiced negative reinforcement by removing the unnecessary daily reporting routine!

    The advantages and disadvantages of negative reinforcement:

    On the one hand, negative reinforcement can immediately influence the desired behavior. Additionally, it does not require constant follow-up from the management team, given the instant effectiveness of removing the adverse stimuli.2

    On the other hand, removing negative things is often self-explanatory; negative reinforcement can cause misunderstanding among team members. Also, negative reinforcement can be ineffective if it is wrongly timed. Accordingly, negative reinforcement should occur immediately after the desired behavior to maximize operant conditioning's benefits.3

    Punishment Reinforcement

    Besides positive and negative reinforcement, punishment reinforcement is a stronger form of operant conditioning.

    Punishment reinforcement implies imposing negative consequences to stop or reduce undesirable behaviors.

    For example, an employee constantly arrives late to work. Thus, at the end of the month, the employee receives less money in the paycheck. Accordingly, the decreased paycheck is a punishment to stop the employee from arriving late.

    What are the different types of punishment at work?

    Managers can consider some types of punishment reinforcement at work, which range from financial penalties and probation to private feedback sessions and demotion.

    Further, many people can easily mistake punishment reinforcement for negative reinforcement. However, there are certain differences between the two concepts.

    Category

    Punishment reinforcement

    Negative reinforcement

    Definition

    Punishment reinforcement imposes undesirable consequences to correct undesired behaviors.

    Negative reinforcement removes unpleasant or undesirable things to increase the likelihood of desired behaviors.

    Characteristics

    The act of imposing something on individuals to control their behaviors.

    The act of removing something on individuals to control their behaviors.

    Table 1 - The difference between punishment reinforcement and negative reinforcement

    Is termination a type of punishment reinforcement?

    A punishment reinforcement should result in a behavioral change at the end of the punishment.1 However, regarding termination, an individual will no longer continue working at a workplace, thus being unable to change associated behaviors. Therefore, termination is not a type of punishment reinforcement.

    Reinforcement Theory: Extinction

    In reinforcement theory, extinction is a narrow and straightforward operant conditioning.

    Extinction implies the act of ending any reinforcement that maintains a behavior.

    For example, during the busy season, a hotel manager decided to give employees overtime pay as a positive reinforcement at work. However, after the season, the hotel manager stopped the overtime scheme as the business returned to the normal cycle. Thus, the act of stopping paying overtime is considered an extinction in reinforcement theory.

    What are the risks of extinction?

    Extinction must be carefully conducted. Otherwise, it can discourage individuals as they may feel unappreciated given the sudden end of positive reinforcement. Thus, inappropriately done extinction can result in decreasing morale and productivity in general.

    Reinforcement Theory in the Workplace

    In this section, we will have a look at factors influencing the effectiveness of reinforcement theory in workplaces. Also, we will discuss the appropriate schedule of reinforcement at work.

    Influential Factors

    Regardless of their choices, managers should carefully consider different factors that can influence the effectiveness of their reinforcement or punishment. Accordingly, there are three main factors influencing reinforcement theory in the workplace: employees' satisfaction, speediness, and the extent of the reinforcement or punishment.3

    Factor

    Explanation

    Employees' satisfaction

    Employees must always find operant conditioning meaningful and feasible. For instance, be it positive reinforcement, managers should ensure that employees are satisfied with such rewards or recognition. Likewise, punishment reinforcement should be reasonable enough for employees to comply with.

    Speediness

    Time is an essential factor in reinforcing employees' motivation. Accordingly, the gap between each reinforcement or punishment should neither be too short nor too long. Further, operant conditioning should be timely and usually immediately follow the cause.

    The extent of the reinforcement or punishment

    The size of the reinforcement, or the extent of the punishment, should also be carefully considered. For instance, the bigger the rewards are, the more motivated employees may get. Likewise, strict punishment may be more effective in stirring negative behaviors. Yet, unrealistic punishment can discourage individuals instead.

    Table 2 - Factors influencing reinforcement theory in the workplace

    Schedule of Reinforcement

    Also, the frequency of applying reinforcement theory can greatly affect its effectiveness in the workplace. Accordingly, there are two main approaches to scheduling reinforcement at work: continuous and intermittent.1

    While continuous reinforcement implies the act of reinforcing a behavior every time it is observed, intermittent reinforcement only reinforces the behavior on certain occasions.

    At workplaces, intermittent reinforcement is more popular because it saves managers more time and money. Further, intermittent reinforcement can result in better long-term behavioral changes than continuous ones.

    For example, managers can practice continuous reinforcement by complimenting employees each time they help their teammates. Otherwise, managers can follow intermittent reinforcement if they only compliment their employees for helping others during weekly team meetings.

    Within intermittent reinforcement, managers can adopt four different ways of scheduling:1

    1. Fix-interval reinforcement: managers can determine when reinforcement will be conducted, such as in weekly team meetings.

    2. Variable interval reinforcement: managers do not define set times for reinforcement. Instead, they aim to reinforce their employees as regularly as possible.

    3. Fixed radio reinforcement: managers perform reinforcement when a fixed number of actions have been achieved. For example, a salesperson is rewarded for every ten successful weekly deals.

    4. Variable ratio reinforcement: managers perform reinforcement when a variable number of actions have been achieved. For example, a salesperson is rewarded if all targets are met.

    Reinforcement Theory Examples

    Let's have a look at examples of the different types of operant conditioning.

    Types of operant conditioning

    Example

    Positive reinforcement

    A marketing manager notices that an employee consistently comes early during the busy business period. Thus, the manager directly praises the employee for sacrificing personal time for the business. Further, the employee is awarded a bonus for their hard work. In return, the employee feels more motivated to contribute more at work.

    Negative reinforcement

    Some employees constantly fall behind the team's deadline. Thus, the team leader requires them to text him daily to summarize their ongoing progress. As the employees dislike the time-consuming daily report, they may wish to change their behaviors to deliver work on time. Once the employees manage to keep track of deadlines, the manager can perform negative reinforcement by removing the request for daily reports.

    Punishment

    At the X company, employees who constantly arrive late at work will receive a short warning. After three warning notices, the individuals will be then subject to a private feedback session with the company's manager. In this sense, warning and private feedback sessions are evidence of punishment in reinforcement theory.

    Extinction

    Before Covid-19, company X provided employees with shopping vouchers on International Labor Day every year to show appreciation for their contribution at work. However, after Covid-19, the company decided to withhold the voucher-gifting culture because of the tough economic situation, thus putting its reinforcement at extinction.

    Table 3 - Reinforcement theory example

    Thus, reinforcement theory has been increasingly popular in motivating employees at work. However, a successful application of this theory requires a thorough understanding of this concept and careful consideration from managers.

    The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the result

    - B. F. Skinner

    Reinforcement Theory - Key takeaways

    • In 1957, the reinforcement theory of motivation was first proposed by B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist at Harvard University.
    • Reinforcement theory states that an individual's behavior is shaped by the behavior's consequences.
    • There are four aspects of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction.
    • There are three main factors influencing reinforcement theory in the workplace: employees' satisfaction, speediness, and the extent of the reinforcement or punishment
    • There are two main approaches to scheduling reinforcement at work: continuous reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement.

    References

    1. Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
    2. Kristie Rogers. Do Your Employees Feel Respected?. 2022. https://hbr.org/2018/07/do-your-employees-feel-respected
    3. Mohamad Danial bin Ab. Khalil. HR Guide: Motivating Employees Using Reinforcement Theory. 2020. https://www.ajobthing.com/blog/hr-guide-motivating-employees-using-reinforcement-theory
    Frequently Asked Questions about Reinforcement Theory

    What is reinforcement theory?

    Reinforcement theory states that an individual's behavior is shaped by the behavior's consequences. 

    What are 4 types of reinforcement theory?

    There are four aspects of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. 

    What is an example of reinforcement theory?

    A marketing manager notices that an employee consistently comes early during the busy business period. Thus, the manager directly praises the employee for sacrificing personal time into for the business. Further, the employee is awarded with a bonus for the hard work. Thereby, in return, the employee feels more motivated to contribute more at work.

    What is the best definition of reinforcement?

    Reinforcement theory states that an individual's behavior is shaped by the behavior's consequences. 

    How do you use reinforcement theory?

    When using reinforcement theory, managers should consider three main factors influencing reinforcement theory in the workplace: employees' satisfaction, speediness, and the extent of the reinforcement or punishment. Further, managers should also consider the scheduling of reinforcement. 

    What are the key principles of reinforcement theory?

    There are four aspects of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. 

    Who proposed reinforcement theory?

    In 1957, B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist at Harvard University, proposed the reinforcement theory of motivation.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Reinforcement theory states that an individual's behavior is shaped by the ____ consequences. 

    In which year did B. F. Skinner propose the reinforcement theory of motivation?

    Does reinforcement theory consider the internal conditions of individuals?

    Next
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Reinforcement Theory Teachers

    • 11 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App