What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is one of the first basic principles that were systematically investigated by behavioral scientists. Reinforcement is the process in which a behavior is strengthened by the immediate consequence that reliably follows its occurrence. When a behavior is strengthened, it is more likely to occur again in the future. In other words, you can say reinforcement is defined as follows:

  1. The occurrence of a particular behavior
  2. is followed by an immediate consequence
  3. that results in the strengthening of the behavior. 

We can determine that a behavior is strengthened when there is an increase in its frequency, duration, intensity or speed. A behavior that is strengthened through the process of reinforcement is called an operant behavior. The consequence that strengthens an operant behavior is called a reinforcer. 

The term reinforcer may seem similar in meaning to the everyday word reward. However, the meaning is very different. Reward refers to an event that the speaker feels another person should like. But the feeling of the speaker does not prove that the event really is a reinforcer. In fact, your own biases may lead you to totally misjudge what another person should like. The following example illustrates the relation between reward and reinforcer with respect to a subtle behavior. Don might reward his daughter Mary for admitting that she broke a dish. Don might reward Mary with a trip to a movie that Don really likes. Don hopes that rewarding Mary with the movie will make her more likely to tell the truth in the future. It may not. Mary may not like that particular movie. Only if the movie is a reinforcer will Mary be more likely to tell the truth in the future. 

There are multiple types of reinforcement. For example, positive and negative reinforcement both strengthen behavior. They differ only in whether the consequence of the behavior is the addition of a stimulus (positive reinforcement) or removal of a stimulus (aversive stimulus). Another classification, refers to unconditioned and conditioned reinforcement. Unconditioned reinforcers are stimuli that are naturally reinforcing because they have survival value or biological importance (like cold, heat, food, water, oxygen, sexual stimulation, human touch). Conditioned reinforcers are originally neutral stimuli that have been established as reinforcers because they were paired with unconditioned reinforcers or other conditioned reinforcers. Some of us have edible reinforcers (like eggs, M&Ms, ice cream, vegetables), other prefer sensory reinforcers (tickles, massage), tangible reinforcers (e.g., small toys, stickers, school materials) or social reinforcers (e.g., hugs, pats on the back, a smile, sitting near a person).

For whom it can be used?

Reinforcement is a concept that applies to all human behavior. Behavior analysts use the concept to guide their hope for people. They deliberately arrange reinforcing events to follow desirable behaviors. Behavior analysts are not alone in using reinforcement. We all use reinforcement in everyday life. More often we use it without a deliberate plan. 

Behavior analysts have introduced the use of reinforcement to teach a variety of behaviors. For example, the staff of a home for elderly people taught residents to choose healthy foods by praising them when they did so (Stock & Milan, 1993). Basketball coaches improved players’ foul-shooting performance by providing immediate feedback on proper shooting form. Therapists taught people with retardation simple language skills by giving them candy when they made correct responses. Therapists taught people to relax.

Coaches improved swimming warm-ups by following them with music. A cooperative dorm increased the amount of cleaning by giving residents rent reductions. Coaches have improved blocking by giving football players immediate feedback. Reinforcement helps many people improve their behavior.

Research about its previous use with children with ASD

Based upon the review, reinforcement meets the evidence-based practice criteria set by the National Professional Development Center with 43 single case design studies. The practice has been effective for early intervention (0- 2 years) to high school-age learners (15-22) with ASD.

Evidence-based practices (EBP) and studies included in the 2014 EBP report detailed how reinforcement can be used effectively to address: social, communication, behavior, joint attention, play, cognitive, school readiness, academic, motor, adaptive, and vocational outcomes.

Conclusion remarks

Reinforcement is used to teach target skills and increase desired behaviors. Reinforcement describes the relationship between learner behavior and a consequence that follows the behavior. The relationship between the learner’s use of a skill/behavior and the consequence is only reinforcing if the consequence increases the likelihood that the learner will perform the skill or behavior.

Reinforcement expresses the idea that people learn behaviors that work. That is, they learn through experience. Usually, such learning helps people become happier and more productive. 


Cooper, J., O., Heron, T., E., Heward, W., L., (2007), Applied Behavior Analysis, Second Edition, Pearson Education.

Gast, D., L., Jacobs, H. A., Logan, K. R., Murray, A. S., Holloway, A., & Long, L. (2000). Pre-session assessment of preferences for students with profound multiple disabilities. Education and Training in Mental Retardation And Developmental Disabilities, 35, 393-405.

Gewirtz, J. L., & Pelaez-Nogueras, M., (2000). Infant emotions under the positive-reinforcer control of caregiver attention and touch. In J. C. Leslie & D. Blackman (Eds.), Issues in experimental and applied analyses of human behavior (pp. 271-291). Reno, NV: Context Press. 

Miller, K., L., (2006). Principles of Everyday Behavior Analysis, Thomson Wadsworth. 

Miltenberg, R., G., (2012), Behavior Modification. Principles and Procedures, Fifth Edition, Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Stock, L., Milan, M., (1993). Improving dietary practices for elderly individuals: the power of prompting feedback and social reinforcement, Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10.1901/ JABA. 1993. 26-379.

Vollmer, T. R., & Hackenberg, T. D. (2001). Reinforcement contingencies and social reinforcement: some reciprocal relations between basic and applied research. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 34, 241-253.