Wrong about negative reinforcement

I was happy to note that several students in the first meeting of my introductory class this term knew that negative reinforcement does not mean punishment. Sadly, I happened to come across another example of folks perpetuating that very misinformation.

Over on wiseGEEK, a relatively long-standing Internet source that provides answers to questions, there is an article that addresses the question, “What is behavior management?” Hey, it caught my eye!

Behavior management is a type of behavior therapy that aims to control negative actions by preserving a level of order and direction. This approach to dealing with behavior change is largely practiced by those working in the field of education, specifically those who work with special needs children. Behavior management is employed to better help individuals or groups make positive, healthy behavioral choices.


So…O.K. As I read more, however, I grew concerned that the article might contain inaccuracies. The author of this particular entry, Donn Saylor, and his editor, John Allen, apparently had not mastered the basics of applied behavior analysis. They were using what I characterize as popular, lay, impressionist language for concepts that have precise, technical meaning. By the third paragraph, the misrepresentations were clear:

Positive and negative reinforcements are the foundation of both behavior management and behavior modification. Simply put, this means rewarding good behavior and punishing bad. In behavior management, the practice is usually less intense than in behavior management. For instance, a positive reinforcement in a classroom may be a simple pat on the back and a negative reinforcement may be a five-minute time-out; in behavior modification, a positive reinforcement might be a tangible reward and a negative reinforcement might involve the assigning of an undesirable chore. Both achieve the same ends, but behavior management could be considered the less severe of the two.

So, sadly, it turns out that the article communicates a muddle, focusing on a difference between behavior management and modification—which one should probably simply note is a matter of words, not function—and mixing that with one part over-simplification (there’s so much more to behavior mod than reinforcement!) and another part of raw mistake (negative reinforcement ≠ punishement).

Read wiseGEEK’s answer to the question What Is Behavior Management?. After I post this, I’m going to scoot over there and drop a comment suggesting more diligent research on topics such as negative reinforcement prior to future posts for their answers.

1 Response to “Wrong about negative reinforcement”


  • Hi! You left a nice comment on my blog so I figured I would return the favor. :) I discovered your blog a few months ago when I was searching for ABA/education resources and I have really enjoyed reading it.

    You asked if I am putting my M.Ed. to use. And I am proud to say that I am! I am currently working as a therapist with three children who have autism. I am getting ready to be the lead of a team of therapists with another child. And in the fall I’m going back to school to take the last three courses I need for board certification so I can consult in the near future.

    Thanks for the nice words! And I look forward to reading more!

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