Research on Eliminating the Distinction between R+ and R-
I should mention that there is a minority of researchers who believe that the distinctions between positive and negative reinforcement and punishment are meaningless and unnecessary. For more on this point of view investigate Michael (1975), Iwata (1987), Baron & Galizio (2005), Chase (2006), Nakajima (2006), Staats (2006). Or wait for my later post elaborating on it.
What Sidman Says
Murray Sidman discussed this type of claim in “The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations”:
Very often, when an instance seems open to confusion about its status as a positive or negative reinforcer, ways exist to make the distinction clear, to determine whether a behavioral change that results from production or removal can be specified as something more than just the absence of an alternative. Responses that turn off electric shocks also take the organism into an environment in which shocks are absent, but would the animal work to produce (or to maintain) that same environment independently of any experience with shocks? That experiment can be done, but the results are so predictable that no one does so.
Do you get what Sidman is saying? He is asking if you take the aversive out of the picture (“independently of any experience with shocks”), would this new environment that lacks the aversive be something the animal would work for? And his answer is no.
Sidman makes another point about the “shock-free” environment:
The termination of shock will be reinforcing even if the environment produced by the escape behavior keeps changing.
This is quite clever. He is saying that you can’t define this shock free environment as one discrete thing.