Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement

I have updated this post. Please see the new version:

Automatic vs. Socially Mediated Negative Reinforcement

Eileen Anderson, 10/21/17

Papers blowing
What will it take to turn the fan off?

I read the following online the other day:

People shouldn’t object to the use of negative reinforcement! It’s just stuff like washing my hands when they are dirty or drying them when they are wet. What’s wrong with that?

This is a fairly common defense of using negative reinforcement (R-) in training. The defender points out that R- is common in life and trots out a benign-sounding example or two.

Here’s a quick review of the definition of negative reinforcement:

In negative reinforcement, a behavior is strengthened by the removal, or a decrease in the intensity of, a stimulus.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

Dr. Susan Friedman remarks in her Living and Learning with Animals course that negative reinforcement may be the most common learning process of all. Think of all the times we scratch an itch, shift in our seats, take off or put on clothing to be more comfortable, and perform other small movements, almost unconscious, that relieve discomfort. Not to mention the larger, more obvious instances when we escape or avoid things that are bothering, threatening, or hurting us.

(Throughout this post I am using the convention of describing certain scenarios involving aversives as negative reinforcement. However, keep in mind that we never know whether any reinforcement process has occurred until we see a behavior increase or maintain.)

Hand washing is a good example of the day-to-day kind. The analysis looks like this.

  • Antecedent: There is dirt on my hands
  • Behavior: I wash my hands
  • Consequence: No more dirt on hands

Problem solved. Negative reinforcement doesn’t sound so bad then, right? Why should I and others argue against using it in training?

Natural vs. Contrived Reinforcement

Instances where we take action for our own comfort with a behavior that removes the aversive are called natural or automatic negative reinforcement.

Natural reinforcers are events that follow spontaneously from a behavior.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

The “event” in the hand washing case is having clean hands. It follows spontaneously from washing them.

However, when a trainer uses an aversive in training to reinforce specific behaviors, it is no longer natural negative reinforcement, because she has inserted herself into the process. This version is called contrived negative reinforcement.

Contrived reinforcers are events that are provided by someone for the purpose of modifying behavior.–Paul Chance, Learning and Behavior, 7th Edition, 2013

No longer does the human or animal necessarily respond with a behavior that directly relieves her discomfort.  The trainer decides what behavior is required to stop the aversive stimulus. It may be something completely unrelated to what the natural escape response would be. The important thing is that the trainer uses the aversive by putting a contingency on escaping it. 

My dogs love to hang out on the lounge in the summer. They come in when they get too hot.
Clara and Zani love to hang out on the lounge in the summer. They get off it it’s too hot. 

This post was born the other day when I watched Zani hop onto the chaise lounge in the backyard, take a couple of steps around on it, and hop off again. It was 100 º Fahrenheit out and the vinyl was hot to the touch. Clara approached it and I pulled out my camera, expecting her to jump off as well. Instead, she settled down and stayed there for six minutes, getting up not out of apparent discomfort, but instead because Summer barked at something. I realized I wouldn’t have known that Zani would be more sensitive to the hot plastic than Clara. See #4 below.

Important Differences

Equating contrived, training-centered negative reinforcement with natural negative reinforcement is inaccurate.

In the movie I demonstrate five differences between the two. In contrived negative reinforcement:

  1. A third party controls access to the reinforcer and can set contingencies on escaping or stopping the aversive stimulus.
  2. The animal doesn’t generally escape the aversive one time and get to move on and do something else. The trainer usually reapplies the aversive, exposing the animal to it multiple times.
  3. The trainer forces the animal to stay in the area. She will generally prevent the animal from performing the natural escape response that would end exposure to the aversive. For instance, gun dog trainers who teach a force fetch with an ear or toe pinch often have the dog tethered very tightly on a bench. People who use negative reinforcement in exposure to triggers usually have their dogs on leash.
  4. The trainer can’t know exactly how much discomfort she is causing the animal. She has interrupted the natural sequence for the animal of “feel discomfort–do something about it.” She may cause the animal to endure a much larger magnitude of the aversive than it would have in natural negative reinforcement.
  5. The behavior required to escape the aversive can be anything at all. The animal often has to figure it out while in the presence of the aversive.

In the movie I show an example of a natural negative reinforcement scenario with a very low-level aversive stimulus. Something you wouldn’t think twice about if it happened to you. Then I show what happens when that low-level aversive is applied in a contrived negative reinforcement scenario. [1]By the way, I am not invoking the naturalistic fallacy or implying that natural negative reinforcement is always low-level. Running away from someone who wants to kill you could be natural negative … Continue reading

I’m keeping this post short (Edit: but see below) because most of the juicy stuff is in the movie. Seeing is probably more effective than reading.


Link to Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement movie for email subscribers.

I haven’t discussed the fallout from the use of aversives in this post. I do in several other posts and pages.  (Yeah, I know, I usually won’t shut up about it.) But do take a look at the movie and consider how you would feel about the person who had the remote control in her hand.

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1 By the way, I am not invoking the naturalistic fallacy or implying that natural negative reinforcement is always low-level. Running away from someone who wants to kill you could be natural negative reinforcement.  Same with using an EpiPen after a bee sting to escape death from anaphylactic shock. But the people who are minimizing the undesirable effects of negative reinforcement don’t usually use these kinds of examples.

22 thoughts on “Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement

  1. Love your work. Like the note at the end too. Oh and I enjoyed the kinky video of Eileen in a dog collar. Be careful how you tag that one though!

    1. Yeah–I really debated whether to use that shot as the video thumbnail, too! Figured it might generate some interest, LOL. Thanks, Sonya!

  2. Exactly! In a contrived scenario, you are re-introducing the aversive again and again…..
    You don’t wash your hands and then stick them in mud just so you can wash them again.

    1. Yes! It is the application of an aversive so that it can be removed that makes ‘contrived negative reinforcement’ problematical. Nothing happens in isolation and preceding stimuli/events will make an enormous amount of difference

  3. Thank you, as always, for clearly describing what’s wrong with this line of argument!

    I can’t help but think what the hand washing example would be like if someone actually used hand washing to train me in the same way that people use aversives to train dogs. It would be like if I were in a math class, and the teacher cracked an egg all over my hands, then followed me around body blocking me away from sinks until I answered a word problem correctly. Little does the teacher know that I am extremely allergic to eggs, and this situation would be painfully itchy and even frightening and dangerous for me! I would probably need to take some Benadryl, and I would never want to go to math class again.

    I’m also laughing a little bit, to myself, at the idea of someone arguing for R- in a less minimizing way. “What’s the big deal? It’s just like vomiting when your stomach hurts!” So thank you for that. 😀

    1. Oh Meghan, you outdid me in the comparison department! Love math/egg/hands example. And the body blocking! Eeek! I had it pretty easy being tied to a chair with a maniac blowing a fan at me!

    2. But but but it feels much better when you vomit! (VOMIT!) Exactly. And yet, some people have tried to argue that R- feels good and thus we should just lump all R’s together.
      Call me silly but I really think of chocolate a lot different than relief from discomfort.

  4. i am thrilled beyond belief to find this post & blog! such a very clean and clear explanation – i love it! thank you so very very much. i recently had the ‘argument’ from someone who was insisting that it was not possible to train with all R+ — my response was that if your intention was trust and communication you could and should indeed train with positive reinforcement using deep listening and care to all the circumstances and rather than set up adversives. Adversives may happen, but be aware of when you accidentally enable them – then stop. regroup and get back to the picture you wish to achieve. This is such a beautiful example —

    — and @Meghan! as someone whose child was allergic to corn,soy, dairy and wheat and who won his schools reading challedge – the reward being a pizza party in his classroom – as he was calling me because he needed to leave the room – i was furious! reading it again here, i was laughing so hard!! thank you too!

    1. Thank you so much! So glad you found meaning in the post. Thanks for the comment.

    1. You bet, Debra. Credit and a link to the blog or YouTube channel would be great. Glad you like it!

  5. Hi Eileen, I am sorry but most of what I have read on your site is inconsistent with my experience with [name of television personality who trains dogs] and [name of national dog training franchise], both of which I have personally witness amazing results…….

    My dog, 8 month old Rhodesian Ridgeback rescued from a Shelter. Able to leap all furniture in a single bound. Raced around the house, would not obey to go outside and a multitude of other extremely bad behaviors. He had to eventually put on leash to come indoors. By the way, I have only ever had indoor dogs, it is my belief they are part of the family.
    I called [national dog training franchise] at a last resort. Never had to call a trainer before.
    Turbo, aptly named, worked with [trainer name] at our home and I would take him to [trainer name]’s training group of 20 or so dogs on Saturdays sometimes.
    His transformation even surpassed [trainer name]’s expectations. He is now 8 and a wonderful part of our family. [location] [Trainer name] was our Trainer.

    My best friend in California recused a 2 year old Pitt Bull who had spent the last nine months of his life in a cage at the no Kill Shelter. I can’t even describe all of the issues Bo had coming into her home. He bonded with her quickly, but was extremely aggressive with other dogs around his new home and most people.

    She took him to [location of TV personality] to begin the first of 4 6 week training courses. She drove 3 hours each way every Saturday to take him to training. he is 85lbs worth of Dog. When I arrived to stay a month he bonded with me right from the start. I went to see [location of TV personality] and watch the training techniques. They have done amazing work for this Dog most people would have given up on. It wasn’t easy and eventually recommended a Shock Collar for him.. She tried it on herself first to understand what strengths and feelings he would experiences the dog would have when the collar activated. The purpose is to do very little Shocking at the beginning of Aggressive behavior, then a simple vibrate tells him to stop.
    Bo is fast becoming a dog you can bike with, hike with, and trust with other adults. He does well at training with other dogs, but not quite there with dogs at home.

    So with first hand experience with two very establish trainers, I respectfully disagree with your perception and research of Training for Dogs/People.


    1. Hi Leisa,

      Thank you for your polite comment describing your experiences with these trainers. (I have removed identifying information, but I appreciate your including it.)

      I have written a post in response. I know you have your dog’s best interests at heart (it is VERY clear that you do!) and I can tell that you are a loyal person. I would like you to consider what can happen to dogs who don’t fare as well as yours or your friend’s did with the kind of training you mention.

      Thank you again for your very polite comment, and the best to Turbo and your family.

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