Negative Reinforcement: There's nothing 'negative' about it

By Heidi Tobe on October 4, 2021


So, after a 2 month hiatus to cover recent changes to the NASW code of ethics, we are back with another ASWB practice question! This month we continue our series comparing recall vs. application vs. reasoning questions. Every two months this year, we're taking a topic that could show up on the ASWB exams and comparing two ways it could be tested. In February and March we covered Narcissistic Personality Disorder. April and May were all about Antisocial Personality Disorder. In June and July we covered the differences between Bipolar 1 and Bipolar 2. This month we are diving into a commonly misunderstood topic: negative reinforcement. This month we’ll do a recall question on the topic, and next month we’ll do an application question.

The meaning of 'positive' and 'negative', 'reinforcement' and 'punishment'

Often, people confuse negative reinforcement with punishment because of the meaning we place on the word ‘negative.’ When it comes to behaviorism, the most important thing to remember is this:

Positive does NOT mean good and Negative does NOT mean bad when it comes to conditioning. Positive means adding and negative means taking something away. Once people are able to understand this concept, understanding behaviorism becomes much simpler.

Another important fact to keep in mind is that reinforcement is about strengthening a desired behavior (increasing the likelihood that something we want to happen will happen again). Punishment is about decreasing the likelihood that an undesired behavior will occur (decreasing the likelihood that something we don’t want to happen again won't happen again). There can be both positive punishment and negative punishment, both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. 

negative reinforcement

Positive reinforcement

With positive reinforcement, you strengthen a response through adding (this is what is meant by positive) stimuli. 

For instance, a child cleans his room and gets a sticker. You are adding the sticker, which is increasing the likelihood the desired behavior of cleaning his/her room will occur again. 

Negative Reinforcement

With negative reinforcement, you strengthen a response by taking away (this is what is meant by negative) stimuli. 

For instance, putting on your seatbelt to make the beeping noise that reminds you to put your seatbelt on stop.


Punishment is when a penalty is imposed for misbehavior in behavior modification; the presentation of an unpleasant or undesired event following a behavior. This is about making an undesired behavior stop by adding an undesired consequence or taking away something they enjoy.

Negative punishment example: taking away a child's video games because they didn't do their chores. It is negative because the video game is being taken away. It is punishment because we want to decrease the undesired behavior of not doing their chores.

Positive punishment example: adding an extra chore because they hit their sibling. This is positive because we are adding something (the chore) in order to decrease an undesired behavior (hitting their sibling). Another example would be making a child who hit their sibling write out 'I will not hit my sibling' repeatedly. It's positive because we're adding the consequence of writing, and it's punishment because again, we want to decrease the undesired behavior of hitting their sibling.

ASWB Recall Practice Question

Strengthening a desired behavior by removing something undesirable is known as:

A. Positive Punishment

B. Negative Punishment

C. Positive Reinforcement

D. Negative Reinforcement

(scroll for answer and rationale)













The correct answer is D: Negative Reinforcement. ‘Strengthening a desired behavior’ describes reinforcement and ‘removing something’ describes the ‘negative’ part of negative reinforcement. 

ASWB Masters and Clinical Exam Preparation 

How did you do with today’s recall question on negative reinforcement? This topic can be a really challenging one due to all of the associations we make with the words ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Still struggling? One of the great things about TDC is that every customer has access to a coach they can email anytime questions come up as they go through the program. So, if you still have questions around this topic, be sure to reach out to your coach! And if you haven’t signed up for one of our programs yet, we encourage you to read one of the thousands of real customer testimonials. TDC has helped THOUSANDS of social workers successfully pass their social work licensing exams. Will you be next?


Commenter Name
January 5, 2022

I appreciate the explanation and it makes it much clearer; However, I wonder which is more effective? Negative reinforcement or positive reinforcement

Commenter Name
January 5, 2022

Both positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement are effective (more-so than punishment); which one is better depends on the situation.

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