First, let’s set a ground rule.
Leonard: “Everyone stop. This was a stupid idea. Negative reinforcement isn’t working.”
Sheldon: “I think you mean positive punishment. Negative Reinforcement is the removal of a positive stimulus. But it’s a common mistake.”
Howard: “Negative reinforcement is really wrong?”
Sheldon: “It’s used incorrectly all the time. Even Bill Murray makes that mistake in the first scene of Ghostbusters.”
A scene from The Big Bang Theory: The Focus of Attention (Cendrowski, 2014)
In the weight loss and fitness scene, the term “Negative Reinforcement” is often (nearly always) used incorrectly. Even Sheldon gets one part of his definition wrong.
Negative Reinforcement is defined by the American Psychological Association as “the removal, prevention, or postponement of an aversive stimulus as a consequence of a response, which, in turn, increases the probability of that response (American Psychological Association, n.d.).”
It’s important to note, for Negative Reinforcement, the stimulus removed from the equation is only usually aversive (negative or unenjoyable). Negative Reinforcement is not a form of punishment. On the contrary, it’s almost a reward-based idea because you remove whatever it is in any given situation that might encourage you to do something bad.
Operant Conditioning, as outlined by B.F. Skinner, lays out Positive and Negative Reinforcement, and Positive and Negative Punishment. Reinforces are responses from the environment that increase the likelihood of you repeating a behavior. Punishers are responses from your environment which decrease the likelihood of you repeating a behavior.
Reinforces and Punishers can be positive or negative. This isn’t a reference to good and bad, or desirable and undesirable. Positive and negative refers to the addition or subtraction of any given variable.
In other words, for Positive Reinforcement, we’re talking about the addition of a response that will get you to repeat a desirable behavior. Positive Punishment is the addition of a response or variable that will discourage the repetition of a given behavior. Negative Reinforcement is the subtraction (negative) of a variable to encourage the repetition of a preferred or sought-after behavior, whereas negative punishment is the subtraction of a variable that will prevent you from repeating a behavior.
For Weight Loss and Fitness
In the world of Weight Loss and Fitness, Negative Reinforcement is heavily, and incorrectly, used to refer to a methodology whereby when you mess up, miss the mark, eat something you shouldn’t have, etc., then you punish yourself in some way. This fits more closely with the definition of Positive Punishment in that you add in (positive) a variable which punishes you for stepping out of your dietary lane.
In this sense, Negative Reinforcement- or more correctly Positive Punishment, doesn’t work. There are a few anecdotal stories of where being put down, and constantly punished for something has worked for a few people. However, as a general rule it doesn’t actually work; at least not in any meaningful way.
Negative Reinforcement, in its correctly used form, may work in the purest and most controlled sense, but falls short when it’s introduced to a larger picture.
We know that one of the major pitfalls of any punishment is that when a behavior is punished, it’s simply suppressed- not changed. When we take away the threat of punishment, then the bad or undesirable behavior returns. Also, punishment only encourages hostility and anger as a correct response to a situation because it doesn’t teach us what we should do. Punishment is only capable of teaching us what we shouldn’t do (McLeod, 2018).
Punishment also teaches generalized fear and anxiety. There is a website (https://entirely4you.com/2010/05/11/the-power-of-negative-reinforcement/) where the author describes her ability to punish herself. Now, she’s incorrectly using the term Negative Reinforcement in reference to her strategy- which is actually Positive Punishment. She set up a sliding scale of punishment.
If she steps outside of her dietary boundaries twice a week, then she has a set of punishments lined up for herself labeled 1 to 5. 5 was something like putting a black X across her forehead and then forcing herself to go out into public for some reason. 4 was wearing a clown nose, and then going out into public.
This is more likely to create a co-existing anxiety of going out into public than it is to actually correct a dietary mistake. At the very least, it will create an anxiety of public places for fear of ridicule, as well as only suppress whatever behavior she’s trying to modify. It won’t actually achieve anything desirable.
On the other hand, Negative Reinforcement requires taking away a variable to discourage undesirable behavior. In weight loss and fitness, this can best be described as emptying your pantry of doughnuts, cakes, and your freezer of ice-cream. You remove these things (variables) to prevent yourself from breaking a dietary restriction. In the privacy of your own home, this will work wonders in helping you to achieve your goals; a reward.
However, what happens when you leave your home?
You can’t remove all external sources of temptation in the world. It’s simply not possible. Your best bet is to seek out methods of Positive Reinforcement. Go easy on yourself, be forgiving and loving to yourself, and work to modify the root causes of your behavior.
With Positive Reinforcement, you are able to add in rewards for good behavior. In weight loss, this is something like setting a substantial budget aside for a new summer wardrobe, if and only if, you maintain your overall dietary improvements, get down to a certain weight, reach a desired goal, etc.…