By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Founding Editor, bSci21.org
The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is useless! That was the conclusion published by Baron and Galizio in The Behavior Analyst. Though Jack Michael was the first to abhor the distinction in his famously titled article “Positive and Negative Reinforcement, a Distinction that is No Longer Necessary; or a Better Way to Talk about Bad Things”, Baron and Galizio revisited the issue decades later.
We are all familiar with the the standard definition of positive and negative reinforcers as stimuli which increase the likelihood of the behavior that produced their presentation or removal. Sounds pretty cut and dry, right? I mean, who could argue against the validity of such a clear and obvious distinction?
The authors restated Michael’s original argument as follows: positive and negative reinforcement refer not to the presentation or removal of a stimulus, but to changes in stimulus condition from one moment to the next. The presentation and removal of stimuli are always present simultaneously.
Baron and Galizio cite an example wherein an animal kept in a cold chamber will be more likely to press a lever if the response is met with heat. A clear case of positive reinforcement, right? After all, heat was added to the environment and the response that produced it became more likely. Not so fast, says the authors. The same behavior also produced the removal of cold air — negative reinforcement. A presentation, and removal, of stimuli co-occurring in the same event.
However, textbooks retain the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement and the distinction is ingrained in every behavior analyst as part of ABA 101. Moreover, the main categories of functional analysis retain the distinction at its very core with terms such as “escape from demands,” and “attention-maintained behavior.” To the latter, Baron and Galizio ask “Is it better to speak of the consequence as increased attention or as relief from loneliness? As escape from an aversive task or as access to an alternative activity?”
What do you think?
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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com. Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues. He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.