Positive and Negative: Not What They May Seem!

In case you haven't already noticed, the vocabulary behaviorists use sometimes has slightly different meaning than what you may initially think!  The terms "positive" and "negative" are just another example of this.

For most of us, we read the word positive and tend to think it means good or enjoyable; similarly, we read negative and often equate it with bad or unpleasant.  Right?

While they may have these meanings in many areas of our lives, when we are discussing behavior, they mean something quite different!  When you hear behaviorists discuss positive and negative, you want to think about them in mathematical terms.  When you hear positive, think adding (+) and when you hear negative, think subtracting (-).  Positive simply means that something is being added and negative simply means that something is being removed.  There are no underlying good/bad or emotional connotations when you hear a behaviorist use this language!

Most often the words positive and negative are paired with either reinforcement or punishment.  For example, "positive reinforcement".  So what does it mean?  When discussing positive reinforcement, we simply mean that we are adding something that will increase/maintain the behavior (check out our blog post on reinforcement here).  When we are discussing negative reinforcement, we simply mean that we are removing something that will increase/maintain the behavior. This also applies to punishment.  Positive punishment means that we are adding something that reduces a behavior and negative punishment means that we are removing something that reduces a behavior.

As you can see, the behavioral meaning behind the terms positive and negative have little to do with the way we typically use them!  No wonder this is confusing for many parents and professionals!  We hope this clarifies and that you can now use this language like a behaviorist!

Subscribe to follow our blog via e-mail here (we won't spam you, promise!)