Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

Introduction to Reinforcement Theory

Reinforcement Theory is a theory of motivation. It is a psychological principle. It suggests that consequences shape the behavior. Rewards and punishments are key factors for changing the behavior of any individual. The major advocacy of this theory is that “ behavior is a function of its consequences”.

Reinforcement theory is based on work done by B.F. Skinner during the 1930s when Skinner used operating conditioning to define how various types of reinforcers and punishments can strengthen or weaken behavior.

Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Quadrants

Decrease BehaviorIncrease Behavior
AddPositive PunishmentPositive Reinforcement
RemoveNegative PunishmentNegative Reinforcement

Key Concept of Reinforcement Theory

There are basically four concepts that drives Reinforcement Theory;

  • Positive Reinforcement 
  • Negative Reinforcement
  • Positive Punishment
  • Negative Punishment
  • Extinction

Positive Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement refers to introducing a desirable stimulus (reward) to encourage the behavior that is desired. In this reinforcement, desirable or pleasant stimulus is introduced after a behavior so that it is more likely that the behavior will reoccur.

  • Example

A company introducing a reward program where employees earn prizes depending on the number of items sold. The incentive of prize (reward) acts as a positive reinforcer if they increase sales.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative Reinforcement refers to introducing negative consequences on failing to perform the desired behavior. If individual performs in the desired way, employer removes the negative stimulus. A negative reinforcer is a stimulus event for which an organism will work in order to terminate, to escape from, to postpone its occurrence.

  • Example: Strict supervision (undesired stimuli) may be undesirable in any workplace. If employees start performing with high standards, strict supervision and monitoring are removed.

Employees can have Saturday off if they complete their assignment by Friday. Working on Saturday is undesirable therefore, employees are reinforced to finish their work by Friday to avoid working on Saturdays.

Positive Punishment

Positive Punishment refers to introducing negative stimuli (adding something unwanted or undesired) to reduce the occurrence of undesired behavior. In this, positive punishment occurs when a stimulus is presented for an undesired behavior and such stimuli are removed when subsequent occurrences of undesired behavior are reduced or eliminated.

Positive punishment is effective when it immediately follows the unwanted behavior.

  • Example: Employees need to prepare a presentation and report to executive members everytime they fail to meet the target. Presenting and reporting to executive members are undesirable punishments and not meeting the target is undesired behavior. To avoid presentation and report, employees work harder to meet the assigned target.

Negative Punishment 

Negative Punishment includes removing or preventing a favorable or desirable stimuli to reduce a behavior or response. The major goal of negative punishment is to decrease unwanted behavior by taking away something important or desirable.

Positive Punishment means adding something unpleasant and negative punishment means removing something pleasant.

  • Example: Underperformance or any issues by employees may lead to demotion or suspension in any workplace scenario. Similarly, employees get transferred to undesired departments or locations for poor performance. These are some workplace negative punishments.


Extinction involves eliminating any reinforcement that is causing or maintaining a behavior. Removing reinforcing stimuli will gradually make the behavior disappear. Extinction will eventually end the behavior of an individual which s/he has learned over a period of time.

  • Example: Employer motivates employees to share their queries with HR departments or their seniors via various mediums. When employees actually start sharing their queries, HR departments or seniors are non- responsive. When this non-responsive behavior increases, employees stop sharing their queries leading to extinction of queries-sharing behavior.

Reinforcement Theory in a nutshell


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