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Behav Anal. 2005;28(2):85-98.

Positive and negative reinforcement: Should the distinction be preserved?


Michael (1975) reviewed efforts to classify reinforcing events in terms of whether stimuli are added (positive reinforcement) or removed (negative reinforcement). He concluded that distinctions in these terms are confusing and ambiguous. Of necessity, adding a stimulus requires its previous absence and removing a stimulus its previous presence. Moreover, there is no good basis, either behavioral or physiological, that indicates the involvement of distinctly different processes, and on these grounds he proposed that the distinction be abandoned. Despite the cogency of Michael's analysis, the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement is still being taught. In this paper, we reconsider the issue from the perspective of 30 years. However, we could not find new evidence in contemporary research and theory that allows reliable classification of an event as a positive rather than a negative reinforcer. We conclude by reiterating Michael's admonitions about the conceptual confusion created by such a distinction.

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