The Behavior Big Four

The Learning Quadrants of BF Skinner: Positive and Negative Reinforcement, Positive and Negative Punishment

It’s my opinion that anyone who calls themselves a teacher or a trainer needs to fully understand the Learning Quadrants of BF Skinner–including how to apply them and what the results of each are. Maybe you’ve never heard of them? Then let me try to explain them in a nutshell:

Essentially, in all teaching and training, there are only two ways to deal with a behavior: stop it or encourage it to happen again.

These ways are called Punishment (ending a behavior) and Reinforcement (getting a behavior to repeat). They were given those names by B.F. Skinner, a Harvard psychologist who believed that the best way to understand the behavior of humans and animals was to study the cause of an action (antecedent), the action (behavior), and the consequence of the action. He called this approach to psychology Operant Conditioning.

When Skinner started studying psychology, Classical Conditioning had been defined by Pavlov (you remember the experiments about the dog salivating from hearing a ringing bell.) While Skinner agreed with Pavlov’s work, he felt that Classical Conditioning was too simplistic when it came to explaining most behaviors.

Originally, Skinner’s studies were based on his work was based on Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect defined in 1898. The priniciple of Thorndike’s Law of Effect is essentially that behavior which is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is less likely to be repeated. 

Thanks to Skinner, the somewhat amorphous Law of Effect became a much more helpful Quadrant of Behaviors, the chart of which applies to all learning of all living beings.

Positive Punishment

In the chart above, the first box is Positive Punishment. “Positive” is in the math sense of “adding”–not the subjective idea of “good.”

“Punishment” here means “stopping a behavior.”

Therefore, Positive Punishment is when the teacher ADDS something to the student’s experience to STOP a behavior.

In order for the addition of something to be punishment, what is added must be something aversive, particularly something which causes pain or discomfort to the student.

Positive Punishment surrounds us in our lives. Examples of Positive Punishment are:

Parent spanks a child to stop the child’s screaming.

Teacher criticizes a student to stop the student’s speaking out of turn in class.

Horse trainer slaps a horse to stop the horse from pawing the ground.

Negative Punishment

The next box which is below the first is Negative Punishment. “Negative” is in the math sense of “subtracting”–not the subjective idea of “bad.”

“Punishment,” here means “stopping a behavior.”

Therefore, Negative Punishment is when the teacher SUBTRACTS something to the student’s experience to STOP a behavior.

In order for the subtraction of something to be punishment, what is removed must be something the student desires.

Examples of Negative Punishment are:

Parent grounds a teenager after the teenager stayed out too late.

Teacher keeps a student in from recess after the student defaced a desk.

Horse trainer ties a horse away from the others after the horse bolted back to the herd.

Positive Reinforcement

The third box in the upper right is Positive Reinforcement, “Positive” again meaning “to add.”

“Reinforcement” here means “repeating a behavior.”

Therefore, Positive Reinforcement is when the teacher ADDS something to the student’s experience so that the student REPEATS a behavior.

In order for the addition of something to be reinforcement, what is added must be something the student desires.

Examples of Positive Reinforcement are:

Parent gives a child praise after the child helped pick up toys.

Teacher gives a student time to play a game on the computer after the student finished an assignment early.

Horse trainer gives a horse a carrot after the horse stands still to be haltered.

Negative Reinforcement

The last box in the lower right is Negative Reinforcement. “Negative” here means to “subtract” or “remove”.

“Reinforcement” again means to get a behavior to repeat.

Therefore, Negative Reinforcement is when the teacher SUBTRACTS something to the student’s experience so that the student REPEATS a behavior.

In order for the subtraction of something to be reinforcement, what is removed must be something aversive to the student.

Examples of Negative Reinforcement are:

Parent removes the child from the car seat after the child stops crying.

Teacher allows a student to leave the room after the student finishes a test.

Horse trainer stops pulling on a horse’s halter after the horse takes a step forward.

The Quadrant of Behaviors is Natural

Life gives all of us plenty of punishment and reinforcement of both varieties in our normal, everyday lives.

If you grab a pan out of the oven (behavior) and it’s hot (aversive stimulus), you’re unlikely to grab a pan like that again. Even when you use a pot-holder, you’ll hesitate. That would be Positive (adding the aversive stimulus) punishment (reducing the behavior.)

However, if you’re eight years old and you carelessly bump into Great Aunt Ethel at a picnic (behavior) and in doing so, knock the ice cream on your cone onto the grass (losing desired stimulus) you’re unlikely to bump into someone like that again. That would be Negative (removing a desired stimulus) punishment (reducing the behavior in the future.)

To get a little more complicated, if a situation is aversive such as a horse is on a hot, tiring trail ride and then its rider asks it to stop, is that Positive reinforcement or Negative reinforcement?

If a situation is desired such as your horse is chilling out in the pasture with the herd on a beautiful sunny day, and you remove your horse from the herd, is that Negative reinforcement or Negative punishment?

You can see where this can get muddy in real world situations and that it’s entirely dependent on several factors such as timing and the immediate behavior of the horse.

Real world learning often comes from a combination of these four.

Example: A foal sticks with its mother because of Positive reinforcement (the mother gives it reassurance and milk if it stays close), Negative reinforcement (the other horses in the herd don’t bite it if it stays close), Positive punishment (the foal gets knocked over when it wanders away), and Negative punishment (the foal can’t find the mother’s teat when it wanders away.)

In addition to the Quadrant, Negative reinforcement also comes in two flavors: Active Avoidance and Escape.

Active avoidance is when a horse increases a behavior to avoid an aversive stimulus which MAY happen. 

Most of the perils of trailer loading could be chalked up to Active Avoidance. You don’t know why that horse won’t load when there’s nothing bad happening.

Escape is when the aversive stimulus is a constant already happening and the horse gets the desired stimulus AFTER the behavior.

An example of this would be flies biting the horse and the horse making the connection between standing still for the fly spray which stops the flies biting.

Another example would be a horse entering a stall because of rain, even though the horse prefers to be out of the stall.

Escape is a tough one to analyze because of the timing involved.

And timing in operant conditioning…is everything.

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