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!

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Take a Time Out from Time Out

Time-out is a procedure often used by parents (and some teachers) in an attempt to decrease a child’s interfering behavior (i.e., behavior that may impede learning or interfere with functioning in their daily environments).  These behaviors can take many forms, such as hitting, temper tantrums, yelling, etc. Time-out often involves having a child sit in the corner or a chair and excluding them from a desired activity contingent on the occurrence of this interfering behavior.  Time-out is sometimes an effective procedure, which is why parents and teachers may use it so often.  But you have to be very careful when applying this procedure, because you can also run the risk of increasing that interfering behavior. 

Here is why:  Let’s say you give your child an instruction to do something that he/she does not want to do (e.g., take a bath) and then he/she repeatedly starts to hit you.  Many parents in this situation would then put the child in time-out in an attempt to teach him/her that hitting is bad!  But what parents are actually doing in this situation is reinforcing (i.e., increasing the future frequency of) the behavior.  The child hit you because he/she did not want to follow your instruction.  By putting the child in time-out, you are allowing them to avoid the task that they did not want to engage in.  So what did your child learn in this scenario?  “When I hit, I don’t have to do what Mommy/Daddy says.”

So please be careful when using time-out to decrease interfering behavior.  You may actually be accidentally increasing the behavior.  If you know that your child is engaging in an interfering behavior to avoid doing a task or following your instruction, the best way to respond is to follow through with your instruction.  You will then teach him/her that when they engage in interfering behavior, they still have to listen to their parents!  If you remain consistent, this interfering behavior will decrease because it will no longer get them what they want.

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