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Integrated Christian Counseling

(Examples of Negative Reinforcement) 


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The Integration of Behavior Therapy into Christian Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CCBT)
Duration: (10:28)
User: doctoisin - Added: 4/28/14


As a follow-up to my document on integrating behavior modification principles into Christian counseling, I have prepared this emaill to provide further clarification of the behavioral term, "Negative Reinforcement."  When analyzing behavior from a "behavior modification" perspective, behaviorists look at three main factors.  These are the so-called "A,B,C's" of behavior modification.  Below, I will first provide further clarification of case of projectile vomiting and then move on to provide additional illustrations of "Negative Reinforcement."


Behavior (projectile vomiting)

Consequences  (other person moves away)

The "target behavior" in the case that I gave you was the patient's "projectile vomiting."  As a behaviorist, I am interested in what may be causing the behavior to increase or decrease.  Through observation, it was noted that the frequency of projectile vomiting increased when other people would approach the patient (i.e., get to close to him).  Through observation, it was also noted that immediately following the projectile vomiting, the Consequence was that that the "other person" moved back from the patient.  Based on this observation, it was hypothesized that the frequency of projectile vomiting had increased as a result of negative reinforcement.  What was rewarding the behavior was hypothesized to be the fact that the "other person" moved back.  The action/behavior of "moving back" switched off the aversive event (the patient's anxiety).  Here is further explanation...

Behaviors are either increased (Reinforced), decreased (Punished), or stay at the same frequency, as a result of the Antecedents (things that occur "before" the Behavior) or Consequences (things/events that occur after the behavior occurs).  By definition, there are two types of Consequencs that can lead to an increase of the target Behavior.  

Positive Reinforcement (For example, so-called "primary reinforcement" involves immediately following the target behavior with things such as food, touch, etc.  So-called "secondary reinforcers are things such as money--they are "learned" reinforcers).

Negative Reinforcement:  any action or behavior that "switches off" an aversive event, or postpones the occurrence of an aversive event.

In the case of our patient, the aversive event is hypothesized to be the uncomfortable anxiety that is caused (internally) when another person gets close to him.  When he would projectile vomit, this Behavior (of projectile vomiting) would result in the "other person" moving away from him, which reduced or "switched-off" the aversive event (i.e., the anxiety caused by another person coming close to him).  Therefore, the action/behavior of projectile vomiting was "negatively reinforced."  

Remember, the two types of REINFORCEMENT (negative and positive), by definition, lead to an INCREASE in the frequency of the Target Behavior.  

PUNISHMENT, by definition, leads to a DECREASE in the frequency of the target behavior that it follows.

In our example, the fact that the other person "moved away" as a result of the patient projectile vomiting, was hypotesized to be the Consequence that was negatively reinforcing the vomiting.

Most students have difficulty with the concept of negative reinforcement, and confuse it with "punishment."  


Obsessive-compulsive disorders are driven by negative reinforcement.  Uncomfortable anxiety (the aversive event) is "switched off" by obsessive-compulsive behaviors such as:  washing hands, checking doors, counting in a particular sequence, etc.  Typically, there is no positive reinforcement for these behaviors.  People do not praise you or give you food or money for washing your hands a hundred times a day.  However, the act of washing hands, exhibited by the OCD person, "switches off" (at least a little bit) the unpleasant feeling (the "aversive event") that occurs "internally" as a result of increased levels of anxiety.  The frequency of behavior increases as a result of NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT

Here is another example--School Phobia.  A child is bullied at school.  As he thinks of getting ready to go to school in the morning, he starts to get very anxious anticipating that he may get bullied again at school.  The feeling of anxiety is very unpleasant (the aversive event).  His mother, feeling sorry for him, lets him stay home from school. The target behavior "staying home from school" is negatively reinforcing because it serves to "switch off" the aversive event (unpleasant levels of anxiety).  Now, if the mother also lets the child watch TV and eat cookies and milk, the target behavior of "staying home" is also positively rewarded.  When a behavior is both positively and negatively rewarded--watch out!  It is very difficult to change.  

Avoidance Behaviors:  All form of avoidance behavior are "driven by" negative reinforcement.  The fact that an individual avoids going home may be negatively rewarded because his/her action (avoidance) results in the postponement of an aversive event (a nagging wife or husband).  The aversive event in this instance is the high level of anxiety that occurs as a result of thinking about going home.  This anxiety is "switched off" by driving your car to the nearest Starbucks instead of going home.

Hope this helps.

Dr. Campbell