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A Call for Redefinition of Reinforcements

For years psychologists, behaviorists, teachers, and anyone else who uses reinforcements to modify behavior have been taught to use terms which, while accurate, are confusing not only to the laypersons, but sometimes even to the professionals who use the terminology.

The terminology in question is that of positive and negative in the terms of reinforcements and incentives. Here is how the confusion comes about. Reinforcements are classified as such. Positive reinforcements are things that are added. Negative reinforcements are things that are taken away. Simple enough one would think, until we take into account the illogicality of the behaviors people have. For example, a student may be positively reinforced to do a bad behavior by the teacher giving him or her attention for that bad behavior. Even if that attention is a sharp command. Furthermore, a worker may be reinforced to do a good behavior when something is taken away. The confusion is because of a lack of exacting language and a confusion of word meanings in context. Furthermore, the confusion is perpetuated by the variable ways that reinforcements can be perceived by the subject.

Additive-Subtractive&Negative-Positive_graph-01A more effective terminology should be proposed, and this is just that. For adding something, the term additive. For taking something away, the term subtractive. For something perceived in a good way by the subject, the term positive. For something perceived in a bad way by the subject, the term negative.

This change would provide clarity in communication AND would ensure that the motivations of the subjects are clearly understood. For example, the student mentioned above is being reinforced in an additive-negative manner. The worker would be reinforced subtractive-positive manner. Additionally, an individual could also be reinforced in an additive-positive, or a subtractive-negative manner.

An intention of psychology and behaviorism is to aid the individual in overcoming challenges and succeeding in life. Such a redefinition would aid the individual and those who would assist him or her in understanding with greater clarify what is intended and what needs to be done.