Negative Reinforcement vs. Positive Reinforcement

When I first herd the words "negative reinforcement" it felt like it was a bad word! I had to redefine my understanding of the phrase. The word negative sounded like something I should be avoiding so I knew I needed clarification. Here is how I achieved a clearer understanding.

Defining Negative Reinforcement

I utilized my understanding of math and looked at exchanging the word negative to mean the minus sign. The minus sign always meant to take away from. The word reinforcement was easier because for me it always meant something everyone “wants”.

So now I can look upon negative reinforcement with a better perspective and understanding.

To put it in perspective with training horses (or any animal) something negative refers to the stimulus of applying pressure like touch that we use to suggest to the animal to do something we want. It could be touch of your hand or tapping of a rope for example. Let’s look at the example of wanting a horse to move his hindquarters away from you by touching him on his hip or flank area.

The negative part is just the pressure of the touch, starting really soft and increasing very slowly until the horse thinks, Hey, I would like this touch to “stop”. If he moves into the pressure, nothing happens and it may even feel a little more uncomfortable than before. So the horse makes another decision, this time he moves away from the touch and thus moves his hindquarters in the direction you were wanting. Immediately you would stop the pressure from the touch, the negative stimuli stops and that is the reinforcement he receives- to have it stop and be more comfortable.

Positive Reinforcement would mean to “add” something to the equation. Again I think of the add sign in math.

With the above example I would still start the request with some stimuli like the touching but this time when the horse moves in the correct direction I would not only release the pressure but add something the horse wants. (This is an example of combining both negative and positive reinforcement) In clicker training this usually is a piece of food but it could also be a favourite scratch or a Good Boy! The “click” noise is the bridge signal to help the horse understand the exact moment the correct behavior was that created the positive reinforcement.

In either method it is the timing of the release when horses learn. Never when the stimulus is being applied. This is the key to obtaining a language and understanding.

In Natural Horsemanship it is negative reinforcement that is predominantly used. In Clicker Training it is positive reinforcement that is predominantly used. What I have found to be the most effective with horses is to combine both methods but keeping positive reinforcement at the for front at all times.

Pure Positive Reinforcement

Here is where no negative stimulus is offered at all. In Clicker Training we utilize “Capturing” which means to just wait until the behavior we want is offered voluntarily. One good example is waiting for a horse to lower their head or look away from you. You would just “click” the moment you see the behaviour and then reinforce. Once you have captured a behaviour you can then “shape” it into either a sequence of behaviors or start using a cue for the behaviour.

Another word for “reinforce” could also be to “reward”.

Negative Reinforcement with Children, Adults & Horses!

The downfall with only using negative reinforcement is the after effects. A common one is resentment. If you have ever experienced a boss who only threatens or bribes to get you to work harder, you usually end up resenting them rather than respecting them.

With young children (and especially in the school system) there is more negative reinforcement offered than positive. We scold the child for incorrect behavior more often than rewarding or acknowledging the child for a job well done. Studies have shown that we all do better when positively rewarded.

The after effects of positive reinforcement are confidence, respect and appreciation for one’s self and others.

I have seen huge results in these areas with my horses since applying more positive reinforcement and now communication is faster than ever before!.

clicker training with horses

Go back to Clicker Training from Negative Reinforcement