Tag: automatic reinforcement

Natural vs. Contrived Negative Reinforcement

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.
Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch

Why Scratching an Itch is Not the Same as Performing a Force Fetch

Gorilla sitting on ground next to a tree. He is scratching his head with his left hand.
Gorilla scratching an itch

Quite often in discussions about negative reinforcement, someone brings up a plethora of examples from human life that sound harmless and benign. Here are some of the items that are often mentioned:

  • Scratching an itch
  • Washing your hands to remove dirt
  • Drying your hands on a towel to get the water off
  • Trimming your fingernails to reduce their length
  • Taking out the trash when the kitchen can gets full
  • Turning on the windshield wipers in the car to remove rain from the windshield
  • Taking an aspirin if you have a headache
  • Covering your ears if there is a loud sound
  • Putting on a coat when the temperature drops
  • Using an umbrella to stay dry

Reading these, one can come away with the impression that negative reinforcement is just no big deal. What’s the fuss about and why do some people try hard to avoid it in animal training?

All of the above examples have something in common. They are what B. F. Skinner termed “automatic reinforcement.” Here’s a typical definition:

Automatic reinforcement occurs when a person’s behaviour creates a favourable outcome without the involvement of another person (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007).

Automatic reinforcement can be either positive or negative. The above examples are negative since they deal with removing an aversive condition. (For a review of the four processes of operant learning, you can read my post Operant Learning Illustrated By Examples.”)

We learn to do the things in that list, usually as children or teenagers, to make ourselves more comfortable. Some undesired condition develops, we take action to change it, and if successful we personally reap the benefit.

In applied behavior analysis, one analyzes operant behaviors like this: there is an Antecedent, a Behavior, and a Consequence. The antecedent and the consequence are in or from the environment. The behavior is that of the subject person or animal. Applying these “A B Cs” can be quite helpful in seeing what is going on.

In negative reinforcement, the antecedent is the undesirable condition. So for an example of automatic reinforcement:

  • Antecedent: There is dirt on Mike’s hands
  • Behavior: Mike washes his hands
  • Consequence: Dirt is gone from hands

Socially Mediated Reinforcement

The other type of reinforcement is called “socially mediated” reinforcement.

If another person is involved with the function of the behaviour this would be defined as “social reinforcement” or “socially mediated reinforcement” (Cooper et al., 2007).

In negative reinforcement this means that another person or group removes the aversive stimulus. And most important, they can intervene in the reinforcement process and can determine what behavior is required to get the aversive to stop or reduce in intensity.

In automatic negative reinforcement, the reinforced behaviors are directly related to solving the problem. The actions of opening the aspirin bottle and taking an aspirin are reinforced by the relief the aspirin provides from a painful condition.

But in socially mediated negative reinforcement, perhaps someone else has the keys to the medicine cabinet. That person could require some unrelated behavior from you (say, clapping your hands three times) before you got access to the aspirin. If they were consistent, that behavior could be reinforced by the relief provided the aspirin, and would increase. When you had a headache and needed an aspirin, you would probably clap your hands three times. That’s a big difference from being able to walk in the bathroom and get your own pill.

Connection to Dog Training

A springer spaniel, standing next to a body of water, is photographed while shaking water off
Shaking it off

Back to automatic negative reinforcement. Here are some examples for dogs:

  • shaking off water when wet
  • biting their own toenails when they get too long
  • scratching an itch
  • scooting on their butts when their anal glands bother them
  • coming in out of the rain
  • getting in the shade when hot
  • lying down in the kiddie pool to cool off

Those don’t sound so bad either, do they? Dog gets a little uncomfortable, takes action, gets comfortable again.

  • Antecedent: There is water on Fido’s coat and skin
  • Behavior: Fido shakes off
  • Consequence: There is less water on Fido

Reading these lists, you could come away mystified that so many people disapprove of using negative reinforcement in training. It sounds like no big deal.

The problem is that the application of negative reinforcement in  training is quite different. In training we are doing the equivalent of  “socially mediated reinforcement.” The animal is no longer autonomously in charge of removing an aversive condition. There is a human requiring a certain behavior before the aversive can be turned off or escaped.

Negative Reinforcement in Dog Training

In dog training, the human has control of the reinforcers (and the aversives, if used). So in negative reinforcement, rather than a dog performing a natural behavior to remove an aversive condition, the human has influence over the stopping of the aversive. And like the clapping hands for aspirin example above, the human can choose a behavior that is unrelated to the natural way the dog might escape the aversive.

Some examples of human controlled negative reinforcement in dog training:

Each one of these begins with particular situation or condition and requires the dog to perform a specific behavior to get it to stop or decrease.

So here’s what a sample ABC looks like now:

  • Antecedent: Human is pinching dog’s ear
  • Behavior: Dog opens mouth and accepts retrieve item
  • Consequence: Human stops pinching

Perceive the difference? The handler either creates the aversive condition, or utilizes one occurring in the environment. The handler cues or waits for a specific behavior. When that behavior is performed, the handler stops the aversive condition or moves the dog away from it.

The handler gets to create a contingency.

Zani and Summer's response to body pressure
Zani and Summer’s response to body pressure

People often think I am some sort of purist since I write critically about negative reinforcement. But it’s not the R- itself I’m a purist about. I’m a purist about being honest about it. We live in the real world, with our dogs, and it’s very hard to go through life without that quadrant sneaking in now and then. But we make choices all the time. Using an aversive to train our dogs, or to get through a tough situation, is a choice.

In the spirit of honesty, here are some things I have done.

  • I do agility, and pushing into the dog’s path with your body on occasion is pretty hard to avoid. But I’m learning to be a better handler, and there’s always a different way to handle just about any sequence.
  • I have taught response to leash pressure (put a tiny pressure on the leash, and when the dog yields to the pressure, treat). It is a combination of negative and positive reinforcement. See below for my comments about it.
  • I have used body pressure in the past to get my dogs to move or return to stay position or to walk down the stairs. I have a movie showing their sad reactions to that.  I have a third, less sensitive dog, on whom I occasionally perform a body block, for instance, if she is liable to bash into my other dogs if I don’t take action. However, that may not constitute negative reinforcement, since there doesn’t seem to be a behavioral change on her part and she is not getting more sensitized to the pressure. So it’s just plain application of pressure on my part, in a pinch.
  • I have also used negative reinforcement a few times when the other alternative would have been unintentionally positively reinforcing a behavior that I really don’t like. For instance, in the past when I was holding Zani or Summer and they started to struggle, a couple of times I hung on until they became still, and only then released them. I didn’t want to reinforce the struggling by putting them down right then. If I found myself doing something like that repeatedly I would take action about the problem. And actually, I did in that case. We do practice handling and associating being held with great things, and I think it’s been years since I had to apply that kind of restraint.
  • And of course through daily life with multiple dogs I probably unconsciously use body pressure more often than I know, although I make an effort to pay attention. And again, the dog I am most likely to use it on is not showing any particular behavior changes that I can see, so there may not be negative reinforcement going on.

It’s important to me to be honest about it.  But I also want to make it clear: I strive not to use these things. Please don’t interpret the above items as condoning negative reinforcement. I’m always looking for better ways. I hope you are too.

Even some of the more benign-sounding techniques in the list of links above I have seen to be quite unpleasant to dogs. I used to do leash pressure exercises with my dogs as part of leash training, and when I look at video footage of those training sessions, I can tell they didn’t enjoy the training as much as most of the other things we do, especially at first, even though they got a treat every time they yielded to the (tiny!) pressure. Perhaps more skill on my part would have helped, but nothing would remove the fact that I was putting physical pressure on their necks.

Defenses of Using Negative Reinforcement in Training

Some people say, “I’d rather take something away that my dog doesn’t like (negative reinforcement) than take away something that he does like (negative punishment).”

This comment erases that important distinction: the contingency from the handler. I take away things my dogs don’t like frequently. But I have a choice about how to do that. I almost always choose NOT to make them do something to “work” for it first. I don’t want to come to view an untoward environmental condition as an opportunity to get behavior out of my dog. My dogs rely on me for their safety and happiness. If something unpleasant happens, I do my best to get them out of the situation.

Others stipulate that they do not cause or create aversives, but only use them when they occur naturally in the environment.  This is a very minor point. I think a more important point is that they are using the aversive to get behavior. Wherever the aversive is coming from, they are choosing to use it. And usually there are other choices.

I wrote this piece because I think equating the type of negative reinforcement used in most training with scratching an itch or washing one’s hands is seriously confusing and misleading. I hope it is helpful.

Coming up:

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