Reinforcement: Meaning and Types


What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement is simply defined as an attempt aimed at strengthening of desired behavior. It is a process concerned with shaping of behavior via controlling the consequences of behavior. Reinforcement theory employs combination of both reward and punishment for fortifying the desired behavior and extinguishing unwanted behavior. It plays efficient role in overall learning process of individual and is based on the ‘law of effect’. As per this law, behavior of individual with positive consequences tends to be repeated whereas the behavior with negative consequences do not tends to be repeated. Reinforcement defined in functionality terms is something that strengthens the response preceding it and prompt reoccurrence of response. When compared with motivation theory that is internal explanation of behavior, reinforcement theory can be termed as external explanation of behavior. 

The theory of reinforcement overlooks the internal state of individual such as inner feeling and drives being concerned with inner needs. Reinforcement entirely focuses on how individual is getting affected when he took some action. It assumes that if organization wants to motivate employees, then it must positively and effectively design the external work environment. Reinforcement theory is regarded as effective tool for analysing controlling mechanism for behaviour of individual.

Types of Reinforcement

There are basically four types of reinforcement used by managers in organization for influencing the behaviour of individual. These types are explained in points given below: – 

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves giving positive response to individual when he shows positive and needed behavior. It involves rewarding an employee for desired behavior. For example, praising workers immediately for coming to work on time. Reward will help in strengthening the probability of outstanding behavior occurrence again and again. A reward is referred to as positive reinforce but not necessarily all the times. It is positive reinforcer if only employee behavior is getting improved through it. 

Positive reinforce can be either primary or secondary. The reinforcements bringing direct beneficial consequences to individual such as food, shelter and clothing are categorized as primary reinforcement. Secondary reinforcements, on other hand, also bring benefits but carries different meanings for different persons. The money is termed as most potential positive reinforcer as it can be used for buying primary reinforcers like food, clothing etc. Few of the secondary reinforcer are involvement in decision-making, recognition, participation and praise.   

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is also known by term ‘Escape Conditioning’ and ‘Avoidance Learning’. This reinforcement occurs when a person learns to escape from unpleasant circumstances. Both positive as well as negative reinforcement is used for strengthening the required behaviour. Under negative reinforcement, an employee makes efforts to avoid themselves from unpleasant situations like rebuke from manager. For instance, manager always praise the subordinates coming in clean and formal dress but criticize the one coming casually. Therefore, to avoid such criticism, employees may try to keep their manager happy by dressing well. In order to avoid unpleasant consequence, employees are more focused towards desirable behaviour. 

It is due to this avoidance learning that there is much lawful behaviour in our society. It can be more called as social blackmail because the person will act in particular way for avoiding the reprimand situations. The negative reinforcement when clubbed with positive reinforcement for getting appropriate behaviour, can prove to be extremely beneficial.


Punishment is meant to weaken unwanted behaviour and decrease its probability of recurring. It is most controversial means of modifying human behaviour where unpleasant consequence is delivered, in case, if person shows undesirable behaviour. This reinforcement type carries the power of eliminating and bringing down un-required behaviour. Some common punishment forms are withholding pay, demotion, harsh criticism, denying from privileges and taking away the freedom of employee to do his job in his own way.

It is one of historic method aimed at eliminating the unwanted behaviour. But many times, punishment frustrates the punished person resulting in antagonism towards punishing agent. As a result of this, the punishing agent may loose his effectiveness over the time.


Extinction is another type of reinforcement focused towards reducing the frequency of undesirable behavior. It means absence of reinforcements in which probability of undesired behavior is reduced by removing reward for such behaviors that were previously rewarded. In simple words, eliminating the reinforcement that is maintaining a particular behavior is referred to as extinction. This method is most preferable form of punishment as withholds the positive enforcement and ignore unwanted behavior. For example, for a teacher who want to avoid naughty students from disrupting class study by asking unrequired questions, he can eliminate this kind of behavior by totally ignoring such students who raise their hand in order to ask question.