Sunday, March 21, 2010

"Behavior" and behaviorism, positive and negative

'Behavior', as it's often used, is not the same thing as behaviorism. They're different. As I try to understand learning theories, I often see people confusing two different ideas. This article is my attempt to help.

Behavior is a word that's much in vogue with parents and educators, and it's usually used in to describe undesirable activities (I could have said 'negative', but I didn't—we'll get to that later on). But behavior, like stress, is a concept that comes without any value judgments attached. Behavior just means the stuff a person does. You're exhibiting behavior right now, reading this, and I'm exhibiting different behavior while writing it. Everyone is exhibiting behavior all the time, whatever they're doing.

But these days, we've forgotten about the desirable and neutral aspects of behavior, and have largely restricted the term to mean undesirable stuff. A teacher doesn't summon Billy's parents "to discuss his behavior" when he aced a test or won the science fair—she summons them when he pulled Janie's hair. Similarly, we don't talk about "being stressed" when we just got a raise—we focus on the undesirable side of things, and we talk about "being stressed" when, e.g., little Billy pulled yet another girl's hair at school.

'Behavior' has been used so many times in this context that it seems we've forgotten about its more general term. As such, behavior is now largely synonymous with 'discipline' and 'obedience'. But we want to understand behaviorism as a learning theory, we need to get past that collision of meanings, or else proactive interference is going to ruin the new ideas.

What behaviorism isn't
Behaviorism, as a learning theory, isn't primarily concerned with the goal of compelling discipline—although we want Billy and Janie to get along, that isn't the real point here. Behaviorism holds to the central idea that people's actions—their behavior—are conditioned and influenced by the way the world responds to them. I'm drawing broadly here, and there are disagreements, but I think that's a fair general statement.

Referring to the Walden classroom discussion that prompted this post, behaviorists would agree that discipline problems (like Billy and Janie's) can often be solved through behaviorist methods. But they would also be quick to point out that discipline is only the tip of the iceberg.

Positive and negative

Remember how I said I was avoiding the word 'negative'? It's another one of those words that has so many meanings that it's easy to lose the appropriate one. We aren't talking about 'positive and negative' as synonyms for 'good and bad' here—we're talking about "presence and absence", "fullness and emptiness", or "yang and yin". Have a look at Edgar Rubin's vase over there in the margins. On the left side, what you probably see is a yellow vase represented by positive space—the presence of color, lines, and shading. But if you look around the yellow vase, into the negative space, you'll see something defined by absence: a pair of faces in profile. To make this negative image clearer, we've provided a version of the image with colors inverted.

For those of you who've seen the Da Vinci Code, you may recall a good explanation of positive and negative space in Leigh Teabing's description of Da Vinci's Last Supper, where he talked about a chalice appearing in the negative space.

So what does this have to do with learning theory?
Positive and negative reinforcement and punishment are the major tools of behaviorism. We use reinforcement when we're trying to get a behavior to stick around, and we use punishment when we're trying to get it to go away.

Positive techniques add something. In the case of 'positive reinforcement', we might tell students we're proud of them when they do what we want... or we might elect politicians who tell us just what we want to hear. We're adding (positive) something to increase behavior (praise for what they did).

'Positive punishment' is a little bit less intuitive—remember that we're adding (positive) something to inhibit behavior (punishment). So positive punishment might be what happens when your credit card company raises your rates after a late payment, or it might be the old example of students being made to stay after class to clap erasers for the chalkboards. Positive punishment gives you more of something that you didn't want in the first place.

Negative techniques take something away. In the case of 'negative punishment', where we're trying to remove (negative) something to inhibit behavior (punishment), we might take away Billy's cell phone because he pulled Janie's hair again.

'Negative reinforcement' is a little harder to see, because we're trying to remove (negative) something to increase behavior. Suppose that Billy normally has to pay $20 to the family for his cell phone each month. We might negatively reinforce desired behavior by saying that, in every month where he treats classmates nicely in class, he will only have to pay $5 for his cell phone. We removed something (the expense) in order to increase his desirable behavior (being nice to classmates).

So when you're thinking about behaviorism, try to let yourself drift away from the idea of behavior as something bad. Behavior is just the way that humans interact with their world. And similarly, when you're thinking about positive and negative reinforcement and punishment, try not to think of positive and negative as "good and bad"... think of them as full and empty, present and absent, and yang and yin.


Standridge, M. (2001). Behaviorism. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved from

Got questions? Think I've misunderstood something? Let's talk! Please comment—I check the comments frequently.


  1. Hi Hollis, Very interesting approach. I like how you referenced positive & negative as being full & empty. The example you used with Billy and the phone bill definitely give a clear understanding of your explanatin of "negative reinforcement". The unwanted behavior was removed (being mean to classmates
    ->negative), his monthly bill was lessened (negative because something is being taken away), and you get a positive outcome. I guess two negatives really do make a positive.

    Justin Dedden

  2. Thanks, Justin! I'm trying to find my way through all these theory things, and sometimes it helps me to write stuff like this article. So it made sense to you?