Is behavioural treatment still effective if we drop the terms positive and negative (from reinforcement)

This is a critical review of Michaels (1975) paper on dropping the terms positive and negative when referring to reinforcement. This paper was submitted in partial fulfilment of a masters in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). For any comments or queries regarding this paper please email:

Synopsis of the paper

The addition of a stimulus after a response which increases the future frequency of behaviour is termed positive reinforcement; conversely, negative reinforcement is either escape or avoidance which brings about the removal of a stimulus after the onset of a response. Michael’s (1975) paper suggests that positive and negative are dropped when explaining reinforcement. This is because they both signal an improvement, negative reinforcement is frequently misused, associated with bad things (such as punishment) and misunderstood in the vernacular. Even though the temporal relations between the pre- and post-change conditions (in both) signal an improvement (Potoczak, Carr, & Michael, 2007), there is no distinction between; the person causing the change, the change agent, behavioural effect or how the properties and relationships relate to the independent variables. In addition, without further clarification you could always challenge if the reinforcer is positive or negative based on the reinforcing effect (Baron, & Galizio, 2005).

Analysis of the points raised

The prevailing approach differentiates between the two types of reinforcement, positive reinforcers strengthen based on their presentation contingent on responding and in negative reinforcement the response leads to the removal. The presentation and removal are the central tenet of operant conditioning and have been for over 50 years (Baron, & Galizio, 2005).
Michael’s (1975) paper postulates that the production of one state will always involve the removal of another. For example, when rats in a chamber press a lever to turn on heat, they remove cold (negative reinforcement) and the addition of heat is positive reinforcement. Similarly, a consequence could either be an increase in attention (positive reinforcement) or the relief of loneliness (negative reinforcement; Baron, & Galizio, 2005).
The effectiveness of these operations is not always dependent on them being absent previously, but on behaviour that is made possible in the future. For example, a response that terminates a shock, takes the organism into an environment which no longer has shocks. However, the organism does not engage in this behaviour with no experience of shocks. Therefore, both types of reinforcement are hinged on the context in which the event occurs, and a stimulus has to be presented from a condition in which it was absent (positive), and the response-contingent termination (negative) of that stimulus is preceded by one where it was present. Therefore, the argument refers to the change from one condition to another and not just the presentation or removal of a stimulus. This is challenged by the fact that the alternative form is the basis for a reinforcing effect, because something had to be added in order for it to be removed, which is not always the case (Michael, 2005).
Sidman (2006) suggests that the term negative reinforcement needs to be revised because it is often confused with punishment. It is equally important to understand how both escape and avoidance are reinforcing. Sidman (2006) also pointed out that positive and negative are inextricably mixed, especially when used to explain production of agreement or escape from disagreement. The distinction between positive and negative (reinforcement) being misunderstood in the vernacular suggests it should be challenged, a science that is more relatable to everyday life is more likely to survive (Michael, 1975). A science that drops these terms because they are considered bad or good by society is not operating objectively in the best interests of the science, but more like a concerned citizen. However, if advice is not taken on board and undesirable procedures result, then it is also not wise to maintain this distinction at the scientific level (Baron, & Galizio, 2005). In addition to these points, it is worth noting that, both negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement can have side effects, particularly when the Motivating Operation (MO) is strong. An exploration of the extent to which these side effects are similar/different is worth further consideration. If they do not differ, then the distinction is not important.

Practical and theoretical implications

Experimental functional analysis (Iwata et al., 1994) results in more effective treatment planning. This is because it determines how the behaviour-consequence relations are dependent on the antecedent conditions being either negative, positive or zero states (Goldiamond, 1975a). For example, consider the reasons a child behaves to obtain a time-out; this could be to escape a demand (negative reinforcement), get attention (because of strong MOs or positive reinforcement), or the time-out room itself provides positive reinforcement (Langthorne, McGill, & Oliver, 2013). Isolating aspects of the functional analysis (Iwata, 1987) has led to further understanding of how treatment can be utilized using the onset of MOs and the value of either escape or avoidance by evoking or abating behaviour’s associated with them (Langthorne et al., 2013).
Experimental manipulation of biological variables such as lack of sleep, have been shown to increase the value of escape from demands (O’Reilly, 1995). Similarly, idiosyncratic variables such as; escaping from attention, social contact and proximity have been associated with a need to keep the distinction between negative and positive reinforcement and how they relate to individual differences. Understanding the consequences in relation to antecedent conditions helps prevent priori assumptions and reduces the risk of a type II error. Therefore, adaptations of instructional packages using information from functional assessments can reduce the value of escape or avoidance by increasing positive reinforcement, manipulating prompts, probabilities of responding and difficulty of tasks (Langthorne et al., 2013).
A thorough examination of the sessions in which the behaviours are suspected to play a part is essential, particularly when behaviour is multiply maintained (by attention or tangible conditions) and sensitive to escape from demands (Langthorne et al., 2013). These contingencies would not be sensitive to the use of non-contingent reinforcement and possibly evoke problem behaviour, further supporting the need to distinguish between both positive and negative reinforcement.
In summary, the frameworks for dealing with challenging behaviour which centrally address the function of behaviour and the range of interventions relevant for specific behaviours with different functions (such as social positive vs social negative reinforcement), means that the distinction between these terms does have heuristic value.

Concluding position

It is difficult to refer to one state without understanding the alternative and how it relates to the response. For positive reinforcement, the stimulus is absent and in negative reinforcement, it is present. This affects how behaviour is evoked and which response is chosen for assessment.
The consideration of MOs and how they relate to the value of reinforcement is essential. When a negatively reinforced state is terminated, the intensity of reinforcement depends on the duration and intensity which guides the extent how it is considered either a positive or negative. In conditions which are less deprived, the termination of negative reinforcement is more in favor of the positively reinforcing aspects of the environment (Langthorne et al., 2013). Even though, it is difficult to scale or correlate MOs, a distinction which classifies the reinforcers into positive and negative allows an understanding of consequences which maintain behaviour. This provides a platform from which, these processes can be further investigated. By retaining these distinctions, it is possible to organise these effects even though validation of their functional differences is still ambiguous (Langthorne et al., 2013). Therefore, by dropping positive and negative from these relations, it runs the increased risk that; interventions are based on assumptions, there are errors during assessment and treatment would be ineffective.

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