Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

Cite this article as:"Reinforcement Theory of Motivation," in The Business Professor, updated April 9, 2020, last accessed October 27, 2020,


What is Reinforcement Theory?

Reinforcement theory was first recognized in the work of psychologist Ivan Pavlov (behavioral conditioning) and B. F. Skinner (operant conditioning).

Reinforcement theory says that behavior is driven by its consequences.

As such, positive behaviors should be rewarded positively. Negative behaviors should not be rewarded or should be punished.

The difficulty in employing this theory is that it is not always easy to determine what types of behavior should be rewarded.

Reinforcement theory provides four interventions that can be used to modify employee behavior.

  • Positive Reinforcement – Used to increase desired behavior. It consists of making certain that positive behaviors are reinforced with positive rewards.
  • Negative reinforcement – Used to increase the desired behavior. This involves placing negative consequences on failure to perform the desired behavior. If the desired behavior is performed, the negative consequences are removed. The main problem with this approach is that negative consequences may lead to unexpected behaviors and may fail to stimulate the desired behavior.
  • Extinction – Used to reduce undesirable behavior. This involves not providing any form of reinforcement for a behavior. The result is that the employee stops doing the unnecessary or undesired behavior.
  • Punishment – Used to reduce undesirable behavior. This method uses negative consequences if an undesirable behavior occurs.

Further, this theory calls for ā€œReinforcement Schedulesā€. This entails designing the time and schedule of reinforcements – as it has been shown to affect behavior. Reinforcement schedules might be:

  • Continuous – The continuously follow the designated behavior.
  • Fixed-ratio schedules – This means providing the intervention after the attached behavior is presented a certain number of times.
  • Fixed interval schedules – This means providing the intervention after a fixed period of time.
  • Variable Ratio Schedules – This means providing the intervention in a random pattern.

ā€œOrganizational Behavior Modificationā€ (or OB Mod) is the systematic application of reinforcement theory principles. This model follows the following five steps or stages:

  • Identify the behavior to be modified
  • Develop a baseline measurement of the undesired behavior
  • Identify the antecedent (causes/motivations) for the behavior and the consequences (what is the result of the behavior)
  • Implement the associated Intervention
  • Periodically measure the behavior to determine the extent of modification.

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