Positive or Negative Reinforcement. Which is better?

Many of us know the old carrot and stick approach. This approach is in reference to a cart driver dangling a carrot in front of a mule and holding a stick behind it. The mule would move towards the carrot because it wants the reward of food, while also moving away from the stick behind it, since it does not want the punishment of pain, thus drawing the cart.


Carrots and sticks represent positive and negative reinforcement and this approach is used in our everyday lives to get us to do our jobs, pay bills, do homework etc.


Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a reward for doing something well (remember that gold star that you would get for colouring inside the lines back in the old days?)


Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is a penalty for not doing something or for doing something bad. Think about why you pay your gas bill. If you did not you would have the service cut off and debt collectors would be knocking at the door.

One important distinction

It is important to note that positive reinforcement is used to encourage a certain action whereas negative reinforcement is used to discourage a certain behaviour.  Parents often use both of these principles to influence their children, ie a smack for biting Jayne and an ice cream for apologising to Jayne.

Parents often use both of these principles to influence their children, ie a smack for biting Jayne and an ice cream for apologising to Jayne.

As positive and negative reinforcement play an important role in behaviour modification it makes sense to apply this to habit formation.

The debate as to which is better, positive or negative reinforcement, has raged for years. I prefer to leave that debate to the professors and take a pragmatic approach.

Lets use both.

I take the view that both positive and negative reinforcement have great power and it would be wisest to combine these two forces for a double whammy.

Use positive reinforcement to encourage the good behaviour and use negative incentives to stop the bad behaviour. Pushing away from something bad whilst having something to push towards.

Most of us know how to implement positive rewards and have done so on many occasions, ‘If I achieve my goal, I will reward myself with a holiday to Fiji’.

But we fail to add in a negative reinforcement to boost the results.

So here are a few practical tips to achieve the negative reinforcement:

  1. Announce your intentions.
    This is scary but effective. None of us wants to look like failures so this is an ego factor.
  2. Put money on it.
    We hate losing money more than we like getting money, it’s called loss aversion and it’s a powerful psychological motivator.
  3. Put a wager on it.
    This can be an object, a task or any undesirable outcome. Your level of commitment will be evident by what you are prepared to wager. Make sure you are prepared to live with the consequences, though.

Everyone is different and that means that everyone responds to different incentives. There is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy with habits or with any other objective. With this in mind, i encourage you to test and see what works best for you. Start at the lower end of your threshold and move along eliminating the ones that don’t work.



If you think of any other forms of negative incentive or have more suggestions, please let me know.