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  • Writer's pictureDr. Scott Dueker

Negative Reinforcement: how our terminology confuses people outside the field

In the ABA world, negative reinforcement is defined as the removal of a stimulus that increases the future probability of a behavior occurring. The key point is that the behavior is reinforced so that it will happen again. We know that reinforcement is a very powerful force for behavior change. So, why does negative reinforcement get confused with punishment all the time when, clearly, the word “reinforcement” is in the terminology?

The answer lies with the word “negative.” In the ABA world, negative means removal. It has no inherent goodness or badness included. But in the real world, negative means “bad” with almost universal agreement. Anything negative is bad. That is why when non-ABA people see us use the term negative reinforcement, they assume it is a bad thing. A punishment procedure, if you will.

How we talk to non-ABA people is important. We have a very precise language that we use with others in the field, but that does not translate to people outside our field. They often have different definitions for the same words we give to our procedures and ideas. Because of this, there are often misunderstandings about what ABA is and how it works. The esteemed Dr. Jon Bailey wrote about our language problem in a 1991 JABA article (Bailey, 1991) and the problem remains unchanged today, 27 years later.

It is a marketing problem, according to Bailey (1991). Because of our reliance on precise terminology to describe our wonderful behavior change procedures, our message is easily misinterpreted or rejected outright. Is it time that we dropped the use of “positive” and “negative” when referring to reinforcement and punishment? What if we said “reinforcement by addition” or “reinforcement by subtraction” instead? Does that carry the same weight and convey the same meaning?

What thoughts do you have on our language use? Any suggestions on how to make it more user-friendly?

Bailey, J. S. (1991). Marketing behavior analysis requires different talk. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24(3), 445-448.

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