Deutsch: Verstärkung / Español: Reforzamiento / Português: Reforço / Français: Renforcement / Italiano: Rinforzo

Reinforcing in psychology refers to the process of strengthening a behavior by providing a consequence that is likely to increase the frequency of that behavior. This concept is central to operant conditioning, a type of learning described by B.F. Skinner.


In the context of psychology, reinforcing is a fundamental mechanism in behavior modification. It involves the use of stimuli (reinforcers) to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior occurring in the future. Reinforcement can be classified into two main types: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.

  • Positive Reinforcement: This occurs when a desirable stimulus is presented after a behavior, increasing the likelihood of that behavior being repeated. For example, giving a child a treat for completing their homework encourages them to do it again in the future.
  • Negative Reinforcement: This happens when an unpleasant stimulus is removed following a behavior, thereby increasing the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. For example, taking painkillers to relieve a headache reinforces the behavior of taking medication when experiencing pain.

Both types of reinforcement aim to increase the frequency of the behavior they follow, but they do so through different mechanisms.

Reinforcement can also be categorized based on the schedule on which it is delivered:

  • Continuous Reinforcement: The behavior is reinforced every time it occurs, which is effective for establishing new behaviors.
  • Partial (Intermittent) Reinforcement: The behavior is reinforced only some of the time, which is effective for maintaining established behaviors and making them more resistant to extinction.

Application Areas

Reinforcement is applied in various psychological contexts to shape and modify behavior:

  1. Education: Teachers use reinforcement techniques to encourage positive behaviors in students, such as praising good work or giving rewards for good conduct.
  2. Clinical Psychology: Therapists apply reinforcement to encourage desirable behaviors in clients, such as rewarding progress in behavior therapy.
  3. Parenting: Parents use reinforcement strategies to teach children appropriate behaviors, such as giving praise or privileges for following rules.
  4. Organizational Behavior: Employers use reinforcement to increase productivity and job satisfaction, such as providing bonuses for meeting targets.
  5. Animal Training: Trainers use reinforcement to teach animals specific behaviors, such as giving treats for performing tricks.

Well-Known Examples

  • Skinner Box: B.F. Skinner's experiments with rats in a controlled environment demonstrated the principles of reinforcement. Rats learned to press a lever to receive food (positive reinforcement) or to avoid a shock (negative reinforcement).
  • Token Economy: In therapeutic settings, token economies use tokens as secondary reinforcers that can be exchanged for primary reinforcers, helping to shape desired behaviors in patients.
  • Praise and Rewards in Education: Teachers frequently use praise and rewards to reinforce good behavior and academic performance in students.
  • Employee Incentives: Companies often use bonuses, promotions, and other incentives to reinforce high performance and productivity among employees.

Treatment and Risks

Reinforcement is a powerful tool in behavior modification but must be used thoughtfully to avoid potential downsides:

  • Over-reliance on Extrinsic Rewards: Excessive use of external rewards can undermine intrinsic motivation, leading individuals to perform behaviors only for the rewards.
  • Inconsistent Reinforcement: Inconsistency in applying reinforcement can lead to confusion and reduce the effectiveness of behavior modification.
  • Unintended Reinforcement: Sometimes, undesirable behaviors can be unintentionally reinforced if not properly managed, such as giving attention to a child during a tantrum, which may reinforce the tantrum behavior.

Therapists and educators often use reinforcement strategies within structured programs to ensure they are applied consistently and effectively.

Similar Terms

  • Punishment: The process of decreasing the likelihood of a behavior by presenting an aversive consequence or removing a desirable one.
  • Operant Conditioning: A method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for behavior, of which reinforcement is a key component.
  • Behavior Modification: Techniques and therapies used to change undesirable behaviors and reinforce desired ones.


Reinforcing in psychology is a key process in operant conditioning, aimed at increasing the frequency of desired behaviors through positive or negative reinforcement. It is widely used across educational, clinical, and organizational settings to shape behavior. Understanding the principles and effective application of reinforcement can lead to significant improvements in behavior management and personal development.