Positive vs Negative Reinforcement: Which Is More Effective?

The central premise of Pavlok is getting the user to take action and create a new habit — or change an existing one. To do this, we built “pattern interrupts” — jarring but effective stimuli — into the device that encouraged users to change their routines.

We then faced a difficult question that’s challenged behavioral psychologists for decades.

Which is more effective for behavior change: Negative or positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement is a reward for doing something well. Remember the joy of receiving gold star from your kindergarten teacher when you spelled your name correctly? That’s all positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is a penalty for not doing something. Why do you go into work every day? If you’re like most people, you show up because if you don’t, you’ll get fired.

(Note: negative reinforcement is NOT the same thing as “punishment.” Punishment implies that you receive a penalty for doing something you’re not supposed to do — whereas negative reinforcement implies not receiving a penalty for doing something. For instance, if you misbehave and your mom spanks you, that’s punishment: adding a bad stimulus when you did something bad. If you get charged money–or electrically shocked by your Facebook friends—because you don’t exercise, that’s negative reinforcement:

Negative reinforcement occurs when an aversive stimulus (a ‘bad consequence’) is removed after a good behavior is exhibited. The difference is subtle, but very important.)

Do you think positive and negative reinforcement are equally effective?

In the end, it all comes down to pain versus pleasure.

Most would agree that running from painful circumstances is exhausting. It’s annoying. It’s the exact opposite of seeking pleasure.

Our research found that negative reinforcement is actually far more effective for sparking initial habit change.

In the context of the over-snacking example above, imagine that you got fined $50 for every spoonful of ice cream that you ate?

You probably don’t have to spend any time researching to know that you’d very quickly stop eating ice cream.

But here’s where things get interesting: If you were continually penalized for eating ice cream, the negative reinforcement would eventually stop working.

You’d become resentful of the constant punishment. Maybe you’d switch to cookies.

Long term, negative reinforcement doesn’t get the job done — and that’s where we bring back positive reinforcement.

If you allowed the new routine to take place, and you replaced the ice cream with berries successfully for a week, rewarding yourself with a small amount of ice cream on the last day will actually aid in maintaining that habit.

Negative gets you started. Positive keeps you going.

We call this “Push-Pull Motivation” — and it’s the foundation of Pavlok’s habit change technology.

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