Monday, March 13, 2017

The Sad Truth about Negative Reinforcement

You love your horse. Why in the world would you use negative reinforcement in his training? It sounds horrible!

Yes, it does, which is too bad because negative reinforcement isn’t horrible at all. In fact, you are probably already using it. The worst thing about negative reinforcement is its name. But more on that later.

Here’s the real meaning of negative reinforcement: rewarding a desirable response by removing an aversive (unpleasant) stimulus. Read that sentence again. “Negative” means a stimulus is removed. “Reinforcement” means that the horse sees this as a reward. Negative reinforcement is used to increase the likelihood that a given behavior will be repeated.

In plain old English, it’s what we call pressure and release training. Any time a trainer puts pressure on a horse and releases the pressure when the horse gives an acceptable try, the trainer is using negative reinforcement.

But back to the name. Negative reinforcement is a scientific term coined by American psychologist, B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). Skinner used the labels “positive” and “negative” because they invoked the ideas of adding and subtracting stimuli in response to behavior demonstrated by a subject.

Negative reinforcement has an identity crisis today because the public doesn’t use positive and negative this way. To us, these words are synonymous with good and bad. We say, “She has a positive attitude” or, “The movie got negative reviews.”

It is truly ironic that Skinner’s naming convention made it seem like rewarding the horse was really punishing him. This is an epic fail! It’s also a bit sad. Skinner was absolutely brilliant and is considered the father of Behaviorism, one of the big three learning theories of the 20th century. But words matter and he was a lousy wordsmith.

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