Reinforcement Theory

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Understanding Skinner's Behavioral Reinforcement Theory

B.F. Skinner's theory of behavioral reinforcement, also known as operant conditioning, is a psychological learning theory that states that behaviors are shaped by their consequences.

The theory states that people learn to perform behaviors that lead to desired consequences and learn not to perform behaviors that lead to undesired consequences. In other words, behaviors that are followed by positive consequences (reinforcement) are more likely to be repeated, while behaviors that are followed by negative consequences (punishment) are less likely to be repeated.

Skinner's theory is based on the principles of operant conditioning, which involves the modification of behavior through the use of consequences. Unlike classical conditioning, which emphasizes the association between stimuli and responses, operant conditioning focuses on the relationship between behavior and its consequences.

Skinner argued that people will most likely engage in desired behaviors if they are positively reinforced for doing so, and rewards are most effective if they immediately follow the desired response. In addition, behavior that isn’t rewarded or is punished is less likely to be repeated.

Here are some key concepts of Skinner's behavioral reinforcement theory:

  1. Reinforcement

    Skinner identified reinforcement as a crucial element in shaping behavior.

    Reinforcement is any event that strengthens or increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring again in the future. Reinforcement can be positive or negative.

    • Positive Reinforcement involves presenting a pleasant stimulus after a behavior, making it more likely that the behavior will be repeated. Giving employees the outcomes that they desire when they perform behaviors that contribute to organizational effectiveness is considered positive reinforcement. For example, many employees respond well to praise; recognition from their supervisors for a job well done increases (strengthens) their willingness to perform well in the future.
    • Negative Reinforcement involves removing an aversive stimulus after a behavior, increasing the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. An example is a student studying to avoid the negative consequence of failing a test. Negative reinforcement also can encourage behaviors that contribute to organizational effectiveness. Managers might choose to use negative reinforcements to eliminate an undesired outcome when a specific behavior is performed.
  2. Positive Reinforcement: The CandyGram  

    In Getting Them to Give a Damn, author Eric Chester specifically addresses recruiting and retaining a younger, emerging workforce. But he presents at least one idea that will work for employees of any age.

    The North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural ResourcesOpens in new window encourages employees to participate in “CandyGram,” a nominally priced recognition program. To recognize a co-worker, employees attach a note to one of the following edible items:

    Lifesavers candiesFor a person who has been a real “lifesaver”
    Strawberry jamFor a person who has helped you out of a “jam”
    100 Grand Candy BarFor a person who saves you a lot of money
    Nestle Crunch BarFor a person who was there for you during “crunch” time
    Zero barFor a person who completes a project with no mistakes—or “zero” errors
    Mr. GoodbarFor a person who possesses a great attitude
    York Peppermint PattyFor a person who is invaluable— “he or she is worth a mint!”
    Adapted from Eric Chester’s Getting Them to Give a Damn.
  3. Punishment

    Skinner also discussed punishment as a way to decrease the likelihood of a behavior.

    Punishment involves presenting an aversive stimulus or removing a pleasant one to reduce the occurrence of a behavior.

    • Positive Punishment involves presenting an aversive stimulus after a behavior. For example, giving a student detention for talking in class.
    • Negative Punishment involves removing a pleasant stimulus after a behavior. An example is taking away a child's video game privileges for misbehavior.

    In the context of the organization, punishments can take various forms including pay cuts, suspensions, discipline, and termination. Punishments can also have unintended side effects such as resentment, loss of self-respect, and a desire for retaliation. Managers should use punishment only when other options proved abortive.

  4. Extinction

    Skinner also introduced the concept of extinction.

    Extinction is the process of eliminating whatever reinforces an undesired behavior.

    For example, if you have a co-worker who likes to come into your office and talk about nonwork topics, what can you do? While you like the person and enjoy the conversations, those breaks put you behind schedule, and you have to work late to catch up. By acting disinterested in the nonwork topics, you discourage the behavior.

  5. Skinner's theory of behavioral reinforcement has been widely applied in a variety of settings, including education, animal training, and behavior modification therapy. It is a powerful tool that can be used to change behavior in both positive and negative ways.

Here are some of the strengths and weaknesses of Skinner's theory of behavioral reinforcement:


  1. It is a simple and easy-to-understand theory.
  2. It has been shown to be effective in changing behavior in a variety of settings.
  3. It can be used to both increase and decrease behavior.


  1. It does not take into account internal factors such as thoughts and feelings.
  2. It may not be as effective for complex behaviors.
  3. It can be used to manipulate and control people.

Overall, Skinner's theory of behavioral reinforcement is a valuable and influential theory of psychology. It has been used to improve the lives of many people and has helped us to better understand how behavior is shaped.

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  • References
    • Motivating Employees Performance Feedback By Sharlyn J. Lauby.
    • Management: Challenges for Tomorrow's Leaders Feedback By Pamela Lewis, Stephen Goodman, Patricia.

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