What The Textbooks Don’t Tell You About Negative Reinforcement

Dr. Philip Hineline
Keynote address given at the 2020 conference

Most people dislike the idea of negative reinforcement, despite the fact that it is fundamental to an organism’s wellbeing. “Negative” is commonly understood as “bad” – thus, “bad reinforcement.” Furthermore, both textbooks and the general public persistently characterize negative reinforcement in terms of a simplistic story that was shown to be untenable more than a half-century ago. That simplistic story says, in essence, that organisms do not avoid rain; they merely escape from clouds, which they must be afraid of. This account insults the intelligence of the laboratory rat, let alone the human.

Experiments that gave the lie to this were accomplished in the 1950’s and 1960’s, with systematic follow-up work continuing into the 1970’s. Some of the early, key experiments need to be replicated so as to reinsert them into the literature. We shall examine a few of these, seeing that, together, their procedures distinguish discriminative from motivational stimulus functions. This will enable a coherent account of negative reinforcement that reveals ordered complexity in some phenomena of major concern.

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