Negative Reinforcement is Good!

team-workMost people are familiar with the concepts of positive and negative reinforcement, or so they think!

Over the years we have seen that the definitions of these reinforcement concepts are often misconstrued.

In most cases, if you were to ask someone to describe them, they would say that positive reinforcement is rewarding for a particular behavior, while negative reinforcement is administering some form of punishment.

This isn’t necessarily true. Rewards and punishment are similar but not the same.

How Can ‘Negative’ be Beneficial?

One reason we associate negative with “punishment” is because when we think of something that is negative, we interpret it as bad (hence, punishment). But this isn’t the case for negative reinforcement.

There is a difference between negative punishment and negative reinforcement.

Negative punishment involves the removal of a particular stimuli in order to decrease a desired behavior. A classic example is when a child gets in trouble and has something taken away by their parents, such as computer privileges, in order to prevent that behavior from happening again.

Negative reinforcement involves the removal of a particular stimuli in order to increase a desired behavior. An alarm clock is a good example. The alarm stops ringing when you get up and turn it off.

Relating this to instructional design, negative reinforcement could be used to encourage employees at a company to complete their online compliance training.

For example, any employee who completes the compliance course before the end of the month doesn’t have to attend the live half-day training seminar. As you can imagine, the completion rates for the elearning course would be quite high! 🙂

For more details regarding negative punishment and reinforcement (as well as the related negative and positive punishment), check out this article by Andy Haynes on Knowledge Direct. In it, he explains the major differences between each of these motivational methods and why each one has its uses given the proper context.


Justin Ferriman is the co-founder and CEO of LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by Fortune 500 companies, major universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide for creating (and selling) their online courses. Let's Talk! | Twitter

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