Reinforcement Theory

PSYCH-105 Industrial Psychology

Chapter 5: Motivation

Unit 1

Unit 2

Unit 3

Unit 4


Reinforcement Theory

Burrhus Fredrick Skinner and his associates

Reinforcement theory is the process of shaping behaviour by controlling the consequences of the behaviour. Reinforcement theory states that individual’s behaviour is a function of its consequences. It is based on “law of effect”, i.e., individual’s behaviour with positive consequences tends to be repeated, but individual’s behaviour with negative consequences tends not to be repeated.

In Reinforcement theory, a combination of rewards and / or punishment is used to reinforce desired behaviour or extinguish unwanted behaviour. Generally speaking there are two types of reinforcements:

Positive Reinforcement – This implies giving a positive response when an individual shows positive and required behaviour. Positive reinforcement stimulates occurrence of a behaviour. It must be noted that more spontaneous is the giving of reward, the greater reinforcement value it has.


Negative Reinforcement – This implies rewarding an employee by removing negative / undesirable consequences. Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, but they are not the same.

Both positive and negative reinforcement can be used for increasing desirable / required behaviour.


Punishment – It implies removing positive consequences so as to lower the probability of repeating undesirable behaviour in future. In other words, punishment means applying undesirable consequence for showing undesirable behaviour. For instance, suspending an employee for breaking the organizational rules. Punishment can be equalized by positive reinforcement from alternative source. 


Extinction – It implies absence of reinforcements. In other words, extinction implies lowering the probability of undesired behaviour by removing reward for that kind of behaviour. For instance – if an employee no longer receives praise and admiration for his good work, he may feel that his behaviour is generating no fruitful consequence. Extinction may unintentionally lower desirable behaviour.


In addition to types of reinforcements, the timing or schedule on which reinforcement is delivered has a bearing on behaviour. Reinforcement is presented on a continuous schedule if reinforcers follow all instances of positive behaviour. An example of a continuous schedule would be giving an employee a sales commission every time he makes a sale. Fixed ratio schedules involve providing rewards every nth time the right behaviour is demonstrated, for example, giving the employee a bonus for every 10th sale he makes. Fixed interval schedules involve providing a reward after a specified period of time, such as giving a sales bonus once a month regardless of how many sales have been made. Variable ratio involves a random pattern, such as giving a sales bonus every time the manager is in a good mood.

Implications of the Two-Factor Theory

Reinforcement theory explains in detail how an individual learns behaviour. Managers who are making attempt to motivate the employees must ensure that they do not reward all employees simultaneously. They must tell the employees what they are not doing correct. They must tell the employees how they can achieve positive reinforcement.

Thus, according to Skinner, the external environment of the organization must be designed effectively and positively so as to motivate the employee. 

Advantages / Merits / Pro’s

  1. This theory is a strong tool for analyzing controlling mechanism for individual’s behaviour. 

Disadvantages / Limitations / Demerits / Con’s

  1. It does not focus on the causes of individual’s behaviour.
  2. Reinforcement theory of motivation overlooks the internal state of individual, i.e., the inner feelings and drives of individuals are ignored by Skinner. This theory focuses totally on what happens to an individual when he takes some action. 


Motivation is a complex concept and can help or harm an organization depending on how it is used within an organization. If a manager takes the time to understand the needs of his/her employees, then the recognition can be extremely useful. Managers are not the only ones who can recognize others in the workplace. Employees can recognize each other as well. It has been proven to that one can not directly motivate someone else, but they can give them the tools they need to motivate themselves. Managers are the resources for employees and they should make sure that their work environment is pleasant and desirable. This will help the productivity and improvement of their employees. If the above suggestions are implemented properly, managers will have a fully motivated team.

Author – Dr. Niyati Garg

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