C: Reinforcement and Punishment

In the realm of operant conditioning, we examine how behaviors are influenced by their consequences. Reinforcement and punishment are pivotal mechanisms in this process, essentially forming the links between actions and outcomes. They come in some different flavors so let’s dive into the different types and how you can differentiate between them on the MCAT.

Positive Versus Negative

In behavioral terms, “positive” is like addition (+), where something is being added to the environment. Imagine you’re solving an equation, and you add a number, thus changing the total. Similarly, in a psychological context, introducing something new can change the dynamics of the situation, whether it’s a stimulus following a behavior or an element within an interaction.

“Negative,” in contrast, is akin to subtraction (−), where something is being removed from the environment. Think of subtracting a number from your equation, which alters the total sum. In psychology, taking something away can also modify the outcome or influence behaviors and actions.

So, when determining whether your dealing with either positive/negative reinforcement or positive/negative punishment in behavior modification, consider whether your’e adding (+) something to the environment or subtracting (−) something from it.

Punishment Versus Reinforcement

Punishment and reinforcement are two sides of the same coin, both used to influence behavior, but they do so in opposite ways.

Reinforcement is about encouraging a behavior to happen again. It’s like investing in a behavior to get more of it. If a behavior is followed by something that the individual finds rewarding, they’re more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. It’s a way of saying, “This is what I want to happen again.”

Punishment, conversely, is about discouraging a behavior. It’s a signal to stop and think twice before doing that behavior again. When a behavior results in an unfavorable outcome, that behavior is less likely to be repeated. Punishment is a way of saying, “This is not what I want to happen again.”

Putting The Two Together

Untangling the concepts of positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement can be a bit tricky, but let’s break it down using the two principles we just discussed.

Imagine you’re in front of a complex control panel that shapes behavior. Your tools? The ability to add or subtract something in the environment, and the choice to encourage or discourage a behavior. If you choose to add something then your employing a positive strategy while removing will employ a negative one. If you are increasing behavior it will be reinforcement while decreasing behavior will be punishment.

Positive Reinforcement (+R): The Boost Button

When you press this, you’re adding (positive) something favorable right after a behavior, like tossing a treat to a dog when it sits on command. You’ve just added something pleasant to reinforce the behavior, increasing the chances (reinforcement) of the dog sitting again when asked.

Negative Reinforcement (−R): The Relief Lever

Pulling this lever removes (negative) something unpleasant from the environment following a behavior. Consider fastening your seatbelt to stop the annoying alert sound. That sound removal is your negative reinforcement, effectively increasing the likelihood (reinforcement) you’ll buckle up again for a quieter ride.

Positive Punishment (+P): The Penalty Dial

Turning this up adds (positive) an unpleasant consequence after an undesired behavior. Say a teenager stays out past curfew and then receives extra chores. The additional task is the positive punishment, aiming to decrease the chances (punishment) of late-night adventures in the future.

Negative Punishment (−P): The Takeaway Switch

Here, you’re taking away something desirable to weaken a behavior. If a child doesn’t share their toys, and you remove (negative) the toys, that’s negative punishment. The loss of the toy is subtractive, intended to reduce (punishment) the non-sharing behavior.

In essence, to figure out what’s happening on your behavior control panel, ask yourself:

  1. Are we adding (+) or taking away (−)?
  2. Is the behavior increasing (reinforcement) or decreasing (punishment)?

Answering MCAT Questions

Generally the MCAT will give you a scenario and ask you determine what type of punishment or reinforcement is in play. To figure this out we just ask ourselves the same two questions above and combine the result to get our right answer.

For example, let’s say you’re texting during dinner, and Mom takes your phone away for the rest of the evening. Next time you sit down at dinner you decide not to send text messages:

  1. Are we adding (+) or taking away (−)?
    • The phone is taken away— so this negative.
  2. Is the behavior increasing (reinforcement) or decreasing (punishment)?
    • You’re definitely not going to text at dinner again—so the behavior decreases, meaning it’s punishment.

We’ve got ourselves a classic case of Negative Punishment (The Takeaway Switch!)

Secondary vs. Primary

Now, let’s talk about secondary and primary reinforcement. Primary reinforcers satisfy basic biological needs, like hunger or thirst. Food, drink, and pleasure are all primary reinforcers.

Secondary reinforcers, also known as conditioned reinforcers, are learned. Money is a perfect example; it’s not inherently valuable, but it’s been learned to be valuable because it can be exchanged for primary reinforcers.

The same concept applies to punishment as well. In this case things that cause pain (electric shocks, etc.) tend to be primary punishers whereas as learned or secondary punishers would be things such as parking tickets and a poor test grade.

Token Economies

A token economy is a system where “tokens” are used as secondary reinforcers. These tokens can be exchanged for other rewards, primary or secondary. For example, you might give a child a sticker every time they attend class and once a kid has ten they can exchange it for a piece of candy or other prize.

When creating a token economy, ensure the tokens are linked to specific, observable behaviors and that the ultimate rewards are desirable and reinforce the targeted behavior.