Positive reinforcement and reward

A summary of evidence and tips for using positive reinforcement and reward to help change behaviour.

Punishment for law or rule breaking is a necessary part of our social rules and systems. It indicates what is, and is not, acceptable. It supports notions of justice and fairness as there are seen to be negative consequences for anti-social behaviours.

However, evidence repeatedly tells us that punishment does not do a very good job at deterring people from reoffending or helping change their behaviour. Furthermore, sometimes punitive efforts can backfire and make things worse.

‘Positive reinforcement’ and ‘reward’ are not exactly the same thing.

Positive reinforcement is giving something positive (a reinforcer) after a desired behaviour has occurred so that it becomes more likely in the future. It can include, for example, verbal praise and approval, money, food and other goods.

Rewards tend to be tangible. Reward can make people feel good and have other positive consequences, but it does not necessarily make the target behaviour more frequent. Reward is only a reinforcer if it makes the behaviour more frequent.

Rewarding people can produce robust gains in a variety of desired behaviours. Rewarding people is a skill that’s simple to learn and effective to use and can be used by everyone.

Surprisingly, monetary or material reward are not necessarily the most effective way to show approval and encourage good behaviours. Verbal reward can be more effective in producing long term behaviour change. Verbal reward is not the same as simply saying thank you or well done, although this is a good starting point. Rewarding someone involves explaining to them why you approve of, or appreciate, or admire their behaviour.

If you want to change someone’s behaviour, rewarding the new behaviour is more effective than punishing the behaviour you don’t want. Punishment only tells a person what not to do, but reward tells them what to do. Punishment can leave people feeling angry, aggrieved and alienated, which makes rehabilitative change unlikely. Reward can leave people feeling proud, optimistic and energised. These are good conditions for rehabilitative change.

Drawing on the evidence on positive reinforcement, these tips may help you make more effective use of reward:

  • Verbal reward works best
  • Reward is most valued from someone who is liked and respected. Establishing a relationship and some degree of rapport is important for the effective use of reinforcement and reward. This includes conveying warmth or positive regard, general encouragement and a positive attitude. Without these ‘relationship skills’, more targeted efforts to reward or show approval of specific behaviours (or ‘structuring skills’) are unlikely to be as effective
  • Catch people being good – adopt a mindset of looking for the positives
  • Think small – reward small steps, rather than waiting for large achievements
  • Identify opportunities - make it immediate
  • Make it frequent – reward as often as you can, as long as it’s always genuine
  • Make it the first option – when you have to give feedback to someone, always concentrate first on the positives
  • Include a coaching element – explain why what they did was good, so they know what to do again
  • Make it personal, warm and encouraging
  • Make it earned – don’t give reward unless someone has done something worthy of reward
  • Beware of unintentional punishment. People are different in what they find rewarding. For example, a public reward may be interpreted as punitive by someone who hates public attention. So choose how you reward according to the person you are dealing with
  • Help each other. Becoming more rewarding means learning a new habit. This is easier when you are trying to adopt the habit as a team and can give each other support and encouragement

Further reading

Maag, J. W. (2001). Rewarded by punishment: Reflections on the disuse of positive reinforcement in schools. Exceptional Children, 67, 2, 173-186.

Cameron, J., Banko, K. M. and Pierce, W. D. (2001). Pervasive negative effects of rewards on intrinsic motivation: The myth continues The Behaviour Analyst, 24, 1-44.

This page summarises the available evidence base and is informed by independent academic peer review. It does not represent Ministry of Justice or Government policy.

Published 17 June 2019