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The Two Switches of Operant Conditioning

The colloquial definitions of the terms positive, negative, punishment, and reinforcement can inhibit understanding when these terms are applied to behavior. We are used to...

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jun 16th 2010


The colloquial definitions of the terms positive, negative, punishment, and reinforcement can inhibit understanding when these terms are applied to behavior. We are used to thinking “positive” means good, “negative” means bad, “punishment” is bad, while “reinforcement” sounds pretty good. Unfortunately, this leads to confusion when trying to make sense of the terminology.

As we’ve seen in the definitions provided earlier in the week, not all reinforcement is pleasant and not all punishment is painful.

It’s easier for clients to think in terms of “good things happening to the dog” and “bad things happening to the dog” than it is to understand the technical, behavioral definitions of the quadrants. To enhance understanding, I like to split the four quadrants of operant conditioning into two pairs, what I call “switches.” We have a “bad stuff happens” switch and a “good stuff happens” switch. Each switch has an “on/off” button.

The table below illustrates the four quadrants according to the “good stuff” and “bad stuff” switches.

Switched On (+) Switched off (-)
Good stuff Positive Reinforcement (R+) Negative Punishment (R-)
Bad stuff Positive Punishment (P+) Negative Reinforcement (P-)

The “Bad Stuff Happens” Switch of Operant Conditioning

The flip sides of this switch are positive punishment and negative reinforcement. When positive punishment is used, “bad stuff” (unpleasant stimulus) is switched on or begins happening. When negative reinforcement is used, “bad stuff” (unpleasant stimulus) is switched off or stops happening to the dog when criteria is met.

The “Good Stuff Happens” Switch of Operant Conditioning

The flip sides of this switch are positive reinforcement and negative punishment. When positive reinforcement is used, “good stuff” is switched on for the dog. When negative punishment is used, “good stuff” (pleasant stimulus) is switched off for the dog.

Let’s see how many examples you can come up with for each of the various clients. Please share in the comments!