Positive and Negative Reinforcement by Jack Michael: A Misconstrued Article

Thanks to the readers who helped me with this paper. Any errors are my very own.

Some terminology in conduct science is notoriously onerous to get one’s head round. One in every of these phrases is adverse reinforcement. Not solely is that this studying course of itself a problem to grasp, however the terminology itself is counterintuitive. Habits scientists focus on coaching, educating, and studying, so naturally, if a time period from their very own discipline journeys folks up, they will analyze the issue. The terminology for adverse reinforcement has already been modified as soon as, within the 1950s to early 1960s. There was extra dialogue since then. This put up is concerning the article that began the newer dialogue, and the way it’s usually misunderstood within the animal coaching group.

In 1975, psychologist Dr. Jack Michael revealed an article named, “Constructive and adverse reinforcement, a distinction that’s not obligatory; or a greater technique to speak about unhealthy issues” within the journal Behaviorism.

This journal article is broadly mischaracterized, in my view. It’s generally quoted by individuals who use aversives in coaching and search to attenuate that when discussing or defending their strategies. And definitely, the title sounds very promising for simply that goal. However provided that you ignore the final phrase about “unhealthy issues.”

Some folks declare the article says that the excellence between the educational processes of adverse reinforcement and optimistic reinforcement doesn’t exist or is immaterial. They are saying that the distinction between optimistic and adverse reinforcement is blurred and may’t all the time be decided. Some say that Dr. Michael dismisses all of the attainable causes for sustaining a distinction between the 2. That is false (see web page 43 within the paper).

Michael’s paper facilities on higher methods to make descriptions of and determinations concerning the contingent processes of operant studying. The declare that Michael states that there’s little distinction between optimistic and adverse reinforcement is fake. This declare misrepresents each the main focus and the conclusions of the article. Notice once more the final a part of the title: “A greater technique to speak about unhealthy issues.” 

Within the article, Michael asks whether or not we have to make the excellence between what we name optimistic and adverse reinforcement. His remaining reply is sure, that we want the excellence. He concludes, “We have to make the excellence to be able to have a reputation for the unhealthy issues in our world.” (web page 43)

Dr. Michael is worried about terminology on two fronts:

  1. He needs to eliminate optimistic/adverse and current/take away within the descriptions for several types of reinforcement.
  2. He needs to discover a higher nomenclature to point when an aversive is concerned.

He proposes an answer, which I’ll describe under.

There are 4 main components to the paper: a historical past of the utilization of the phrases for reinforcement and punishment, a critique of the present terminology, a bit that explores whether or not we want the excellence or not (his reply: sure), and a proposed answer. I’ll summarize every briefly. The next 4 sections are headed with the subtitles used within the paper.

1. A Temporary Historical past of the Distinction Between Constructive and Destructive Reinforcement

This part contains 75% of the paper and is dedicated to a retrospective of the utilization of the phrases for reinforcement and punishment, beginning with Skinner in 1938. As some folks know, what Skinner initially referred to as “adverse reinforcement” is what we now name punishment.

A textbook revealed in 1950 by Keller and Schoenfeld (1950) used completely different terminology, and in 1953 Skinner reversed his utilization of the phrases in his personal textbook, defining them as we all know them right now. There was a interval of transition—Michael mentions that it needed to have been particularly powerful for the scholars who attended programs on the similar time that employed completely different textbooks—and by the 1960s Skinner’s revised utilization, what we use right now, was in widespread use.

I’m not going into element right here, however Dr. Michael did. Eight and a half of the eleven pages of the article are devoted to the modifications in definitions and usages of the phrases and the resultant confusion. It is a main focus of the article and a significant a part of his criticism of the usage of “optimistic” and “adverse” with regard to reinforcement.

2. What’s Unsuitable with the Current Utilization?

On this part, Michael says, “Since 1953 there will need to have been 1000’s of man-hours spent within the try to stop the learner of behavioral terminology from equating [negative reinforcement] with punishment…”

Regardless that I’m not credentialed in that discipline, I do know what he means. I’ve spent many hours myself determining the processes of operant studying, with bonus time on adverse reinforcement, and plenty of hours as properly making an attempt to cross on my fundamental understanding to others. Reinforcement, punishment, and the plusses and minuses will be complicated, particularly since nearly all of the phrases used produce other meanings or widespread metaphorical makes use of.

Michael goes on to explain one other downside that features semantics, on this often-quoted part:

One other issue with present usages is that the important distinction between optimistic and adverse reinforcement relies upon upon having the ability to distinguish stimulus modifications that are displays from these that are removals or withdrawals, and these latter phrases will not be very passable descriptions of modifications. The circumstances beneath which we generally tend to say “current” actually appear to vary from these the place we are saying “take away” in vernacular utilization, however a few of these variations are irrelevant to a science of conduct, and there are a selection of circumstances the place the excellence isn’t simply made.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

Notice that he’s not saying that it’s tough to detect the variations between aversive and appetitive stimuli. The problem he objects to is the usage of the terminology of presenting and eradicating stimuli.

…In different phrases, from the standpoint of the behaving organism displays and removals are each merely varieties of environmental modifications. In the event that they differ, the distinction should not be primarily based upon the variables controlling the one that causes the change.

Michael, 1975, p. 40

This part deserves cautious studying. His main objections to the ideas of “presenting” and “eradicating” are that they focus unnecessarily on the actions of the atmosphere or a 3rd celebration and that they’ve societal and linguistic baggage (e.g., he mentions that removing can sound adverse). He says what is de facto vital to the topic organism is solely that one thing modified, and it’s the standpoint of the topic that we ought to be involved about describing. We don’t want to speak about including or eradicating stimuli, we have to describe unhealthy modifications and good modifications from the standpoint of the topic. (Michael makes use of the terminology of “unhealthy” and “good” all through the article, which can be a deviation from normal follow.)

In different phrases, it seems that “current” and “take away” are abbreviations that may generally stand instead of a extra full description of each the pre-change and  post-change situation. The abbreviation is often attainable within the case of unconditioned reinforcements, though even right here it should all the time be attainable to deduce the traits of each pre- and post-change situations if we’re to indicate behavioral significance.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

An fascinating level: he states “current” and “take away” are incomplete descriptions. He isn’t arguing to disregard the character of the circumstances the organism finds itself in. He’s arguing towards shorthand. He’s arguing that we have to describe the state of the atmosphere and the character of the change extra precisely to be able to decide the educational course of in play.

There may be way more on this part about displays and removals not being particular sufficient for scientific utilization, and it’s on this part one actually will get a way of Dr. Michael’s considerations.

He additionally addresses an argument that has been occurring for a very long time in conduct science. It goes like this:

You’ll be able to’t inform the distinction between optimistic and adverse reinforcement when you practice utilizing meals since you don’t know if you’re including meals or eradicating starvation.

Varied folks

Specialists within the discipline talk about this query earnestly and with goodwill. However additionally, you will see it glibly thrown into arguments by trainers who search to masks their use of aversives (it’s is a favourite amongst pressure trainers). I humbly provide my very own examine of this query, however right here’s a shock. Dr. Michael addresses this very scenario in his paper.

After we say that we current a meals pellet to the rat the listener can all the time assume that the pre-change situation is one through which no meals is obtainable. Let’s imagine that we take away the “no-food” situation, however then the behaviorally vital side of the change would stay to be described. After we say that we terminate a 50 volt electrical shock, the next “no-shock” situation can typically go with out additional description, but when it had been described alone little data could be supplied.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

He’s saying that just one description is often correct in a selected scenario as a result of the opposite one fails to explain essential components of the scenario. Once more, he’s arguing that we have to analyze the reinforcement scenario with details about the atmosphere earlier than and after the change, not by specializing in one stimulus and whether or not somebody “introduced” or “eliminated” it. What is occurring from the animal’s standpoint? Is it a “good” change or a “unhealthy” change, and does it contain a foul factor (aversive)?

three. Why Do We Trouble?

On this part of the paper, Michael examines attainable variations between adverse and optimistic reinforcement and discusses whether or not every specific side might or ought to be the rationale we have to make a distinction.

As we discover ourselves making use of behavioral evaluation to increasingly advanced human conditions we discover it more and more tough to differentiate between presenting and eradicating, or we discover an growing variety of conditions that appear to contain each. A reasonably widespread response to this case is to keep away from making the excellence, and easily seek advice from the related environmental change as “reinforcement,” with out trying to find out whether or not a optimistic reinforcer is being introduced or a adverse eliminated. One would possibly properly ask, then, why we trouble making the excellence even in these circumstances the place it could possibly simply be made.

Michael, 1975, p. 41

In case your objective is to typically reduce fallout of the usage of adverse reinforcement, you possibly can cherrypick the above paragraph with out persevering with and make it appear to be Michael is saying the excellence between optimistic and adverse reinforcement is pointless. Quite the opposite, that is the part the place he particularly rejects that interpretation. He considers 4 causes for making the excellence. He reductions the primary three as follows.

  1. Are the (behavioral) strengthening results of R+ and R- completely different? He solutions that they don’t seem to be any extra completely different than the variations between completely different types of R+.
  2. Do R+ and R-  contain completely different physiological buildings or processes? He doesn’t assume making an attempt to make this distinction is a good suggestion in view of the altering discipline, however he leaves room for future analysis. This text was revealed in 1975, earlier than a lot of the present discoveries that confirmed precisely that: that completely different physiological processes are possible concerned (Total, 2013, p. 69). 
  3. Ought to we hold the present terminology in order to warn folks solely to make use of “optimistic,” not “adverse”? He seems to be asking whether or not we should always really attraction to the double which means of optimistic. Once more he solutions no, that we shouldn’t base a scientific definition on a social distinction. (Notice that in utilizing the time period “social distinction” he’s referring to the phrases “optimistic” and “adverse,” to not the precise studying processes.)

So he rejects three causes for making the excellence between optimistic and adverse reinforcement. Then, in a bit that’s not often quoted, he goes on to reply his unique query within the affirmative, saying that we do want a technique to distinguish the distinction. He says:

The layman regularly finds it essential to determine an environmental occasion or situation as one which he doesn’t like, which he makes an attempt to flee, or keep away from. He could seek advice from such an occasion as “unhealthy” (with out the ethical implications of this time period), “undesirable,” “unfavorable,” and many others., and he additionally has “punishment” to make use of as a distinction with “reward.” A science of conduct additionally wants a approach of figuring out such occasions.

Michael, 1975, p. 42

And eventually:

We have to make the excellence to be able to have a reputation for the unhealthy issues in our world…

Michael, 1975, p. 43

He’s arguing that we want the excellence between what’s at the moment referred to as adverse and optimistic reinforcement in order to have the ability to specify when a “unhealthy factor” is concerned. So it’s incongruous that this paper is cited in assist of arguments to blur and erase the usage of aversives.

four. The Resolution

Michael spends a lot time specializing in complicated terminology within the paper that it’s unusual he doesn’t commit extra space to creating his answer clear.

However here’s what he wrote.

So, the answer to our terminological downside is to seek advice from the nice issues as reinforcers and reinforcement and name the unhealthy issues punishers and punishment. One set of phrases refers to modifications which have a strengthening impact on the previous conduct; the opposite to modifications which have a weakening impact. The excellence between two varieties of reinforcement, primarily based in flip upon the excellence between presentation and removing merely will be dropped.

Michael, 1975, p. 44, daring added by Eileen

The final sentence of that citation can be taken out of context in a deceptive approach. A hasty reader, or one with an agenda, can declare Michael is saying that there isn’t any distinction between the educational processes we name R+ and R-. However he has already mentioned that we have to specify when there’s a unhealthy factor concerned. He’s arguing to not base the excellence on the terminology of presentation and removing. 

Lastly he writes:

The arguments set forth above satisfied me about 6 years in the past to cease making the excellence between adverse and optimistic reinforcement and to seek advice from the unhealthy issues as punishers and punishment.

Michael, 1975, p. 44

That’s the approach he achieves his targets of eliminating the terminology of displays and removals and discovering a greater technique to describe the “unhealthy issues.”

It’s a disgrace that Dr. Michael doesn’t give some examples of making use of his terminology. However I might counsel a few examples, following his lead. Each of those are what we’d now name adverse reinforcement.

  1. In a shock experiment with the objective of accelerating conduct, the educational course of might be referred to as utilizing reinforcement with the punisher of shock.
  2. In an escape protocol the place an animal’s conduct is bolstered by giving them extra distance from a scary factor, the educational course of concerned might be referred to as utilizing reinforcement with the punisher of a feared stimulus.

It appears clunky at first, however when you understand a foul factor (“punisher”) will be concerned in reinforcement in just one approach, escape/avoidance, it falls into place.

Dr. Michael makes it clear that we have to stipulate when there’s a unhealthy factor included as a part of the educational course of. He additionally states that what we name adverse reinforcement features a unhealthy factor, and presents a cogent argument that the variations between what we at the moment name R+ and R- are vital and are distinct from one another in real-life conditions.


In 2013 (sure, I’ve been engaged on this put up for seven years), I attempted to contact Dr. Michael to ask for some examples of how he utilized his terminology: how and when he made the excellence that a punisher was concerned. I reached his spouse, who mentioned he was not in a position to talk about such issues any longer attributable to dementia. He handed away this yr: November 13, 2020.

Dr. Michael’s paper prompted a number of others in the identical vein, questioning the terminology of “optimistic” and “adverse” with regard to reinforcement. In my studying, the arguments had a number of the similar taste however weren’t precisely the identical. I’ve included these articles within the references under. My arguments above apply to Michael’s 1975 article alone.

These papers often get a footnote in conduct science textbooks, however the usual nomenclature hasn’t modified to replicate the concepts put forth, which Michael himself later famous (Michael, 2005). I just lately heard a conduct analyst being interviewed in a podcast voice an analogous concern with “displays and removals.” She talked about that in her work it’s most vital to look at whether or not conduct is beneath aversive or appetitive management, and people are the classifications she makes use of.

And allow me one second of editorializing: I don’t know any trainers who don’t use adverse reinforcement. Even the kindly act of letting an animal go away or take a break from a tough process implies that R- is a deliberate a part of a coaching plan. Most of us would agree that permitting escape is much less intrusive than flooding, however we additionally attempt mightily to coach with sufficient talent that the animal doesn’t need to go away within the first place. So my goal right here is to not preach purity, though I attempt to keep away from the usage of R- in each attainable approach. My argument is with people who find themselves disingenuous about their use, and who cherrypick quotes from this paper to aim to obfuscate the contingent processes of operant studying.

Relaxation in peace, Dr. Michael, and I hope my efforts right here have performed this well-known paper justice.


Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2005). Constructive and adverse reinforcement: Ought to the excellence be preserved?. The Habits Analyst28(2), 85-98. 

Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2006). The excellence between optimistic and adverse reinforcement: Use with care. The Habits Analyst29(1), 141-151. 

Chase, P. N. (2006). Educating the excellence between optimistic and adverse reinforcement. The Habits Analyst29(1), 113. 

Iwata, B. A. (2006). On the excellence between optimistic and adverse reinforcement. The conduct analyst29(1), 121. 

Keller, F. S., & Schoenfeld, W. N. (1950). Rules of psychology: A scientific textual content within the science of conduct.

Lattal, Ok. A., & Lattal, A. D. (2006). And But…: Additional feedback on distinguishing optimistic and adverse reinforcement. The Habits Analyst29(1), 129.

Michael, J. (2006). Touch upon Baron and Galizio (2005). The Habits Analyst29(1), 117. 

Michael, J. (1975). Constructive and adverse reinforcement, a distinction that’s not obligatory; or a greater technique to speak about unhealthy issues. Behaviorismthree(1), 33-44.

Nakajima, S. (2006). Hypothesis and Express Identification as Judgmental Requirements for Constructive or Destructive Reinforcement: A Touch upon. The Habits Analyst29(2), 269. 

Total, Ok. (2013). Handbook of Medical Behavioral Drugs for Canines and Cats. Elsevier Well being Sciences.

Sidman The Distinction Between Constructive and Destructive Reinforcement: Some Further Issues

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The conduct of organisms: an experimental evaluation.

Photograph Credit score

Skinner Field diagram credit score Wikimedia Commons.

Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson


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