How Is Contingent Reinforcement Used?

The chance for a reward is a type of contingent reinforcement.

Contingent reinforcement is used to enforce the notion that there is some type of consequence for both good and bad behaviors. The consequence is dependent on whether the person providing the reinforcement wants the behavior to stop or to continue. Contingent reinforcement is used in the home, in schools and in the workplace, often by people who aren't purposefully or knowingly practicing it.

1 Types

Contingent reinforcement comes in two forms: positive and negative, both of which are used to increase the frequency of a desired behavior. Positive reinforcement is a reward given contingent upon a desired behavior. According to famed behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, negative reinforcement occurs when "an unpleasant event that precedes the [person's] behavior is removed when the desired behavior occurs." Despite the connotations in its name, negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. It is more of a reward, because something negative is removed when a desired behavior occurs. Punishment is a negative consequence meted out in response to an undesired behavior in the hopes that the behavior will not occur again.

2 At Home

Rewards given when a child shares are a form of positive reinforcement.

Parents use contingent reinforcement to control their children's behavior. For example, if a mother wants a child to share toys with a sibling, she may offer praise when sharing occurs. The child likes the praise so continues to share in order to gain more praise. This is positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement occurs when the mother continually insists that the child share toys then stops when the child begins to share. The removal of the negative stimulus (the mother's persistent lecturing) encourages the good behavior to continue. Punishment would occur if the toys were taken away because the child wouldn't share with them with the sibling.

3 At School

Contingent reinforcement is seen at schools in the grading system. An “A” is desirable and is a form of positive reinforcement. An “F” and failing is undesirable and is a punishment for not doing the work necessary in the class. Another positive reinforcement is when the teacher offers a reward to the entire class upon completion of an objective. Perhaps a pizza party is given if all the students pass an upcoming test. This motivates the students to do their best to gain a reward. The loss of a privilege for bad behavior, for example staying inside at recess, is a form of punishment used at school.

4 At Work

Positive reinforcement is seen in the workplace in the way of raises, promotions or praise from the boss. Punishment is losing your job because you didn't do what was expected of you. Negative reinforcement is seen in the threat of losing your job if the desired outcome and behavior is not met. A job well done removes the threat of job loss (a negative stimulus).

Jolynne Hudnell is a freelance writer who brings expertise in health topics including mental health, alternative medicine, fitness and dieting. She holds a Bachelor of Criminal Justice from Ohio University and is currently studying to be a personal trainer through Penn Foster.