The High Price of Negative Reinforcement

In his book, “Bringing Out the Best in People“, Dr. Aubrey Daniels points out that the dominant management style in today’s workplace is based on negative reinforcement.  It’s no wonder we tend to employ the same strategy in our personal lives.  Below is a summary of his chapter on “The High Price of Negative Reinforcement” in the context of the parent-child relationship.

Dr. Daniels says that “doing things because you have to do them is a sure sign that negative reinforcement is the consequence at work”.  Negative reinforcement is the removal of an aversive stimulus or condition following a behavior which serves to increase the likelihood that this behavior will occur again.  You might think of it as the “do it or else” tactic.  At work – “You need to improve your performance or I will have to let you go.”  At home – “Please do your homework now or you’re on restriction for a week.”  The person will likely engage in the appropriate behavior immediately in order to avoid the aversive condition (i.e. being fired or put on restriction).

While using such tactics will likely result in the behavior you were asking for, Dr. Daniels asks us to think about this:  If both positive and negative reinforcement get results, why should it matter which we use?  First, people like positive reinforcement.  Second, positive reinforcement maximizes performance while negative reinforcement often produces just enough to get by.  In the above example, your child might have completed his homework, but did he provide his best performance?  Did he complete the assignment correctly?  We’re warned that negative reinforcement serves us well in circumstances where all we need is compliance or minimum performance: going to the dentist, paying our taxes, using an umbrella in the rain.  But if the goal is excellence, attaining such requires much more than minimum performance.

Dr. Daniels points out another problem with using negative reinforcement.  Often, in order for negative reinforcement to work, the “punisher” or “enforcer” must be ever present either in person or by representation (i.e. video cameras to monitor performance, programs that monitor computer or phone use, etc).  Under negative reinforcement, you can’t trust people to monitor themselves.  This is highly time consuming for managers, teachers, and parents!  What happens when a substitute teaches your class?  What happens when mommy is the enforcer and daddy if left in charge for the day?  Also, negative reinforcement cannot occur without some degree of fear, which leads to an environment filled with stress where short tempers, hurt feelings, and hostile interactions occur daily.

Dr. Daniels points out that negative reinforcement does have its place in behavior management.  If you have to look hard for something to reinforce (i.e. “you sure do have a neat, clean desk”) then you may have a performer in serious need of negative reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement may be the way to start some behaviors that you can positively reinforce.  He warns that we often wait too long to employ the “do it or else” tactic, get disgusted with the poor behavior, and therefore lose the desire to positively reinforce the right behaviors when we see them.  You may be required to reinforce some very small improvements at first – which is often difficult when you have a performer who has been the source of problems.  But if we do not positively reinforce even small improvements, then the improvements will soon disappear and past problems will resurface.  So, forget the problems of the past and focus on improvements (however small) in the present!  “Negative reinforcement can start a poor performer moving in the right direction, but only positive reinforcement can keep that person going.”

So why do we continue to use negative reinforcement as our first and often only tactic?  Turns out that our own behavior of using negative reinforcement is reinforced far more immediately than if we had used positive reinforcement.  Let me explain:  When we use positive reinforcement, we have to wait until the behavior occurs again before we know whether or not the positive reinforcement worked.  However, when we use negative reinforcement we are likely to see results right away.  So, the question is this:  Do you want immediate, minimum performance or long-term, excellent performance?  If your answer is the latter, then the best strategy is positive reinforcement to bring out the best in our kids!


Contributed by:  Heather Chandler, Clinical Director-Augusta Center