‘Negative reinforcement’ has to be one of the most frequently misused terms ever. I hear professional adults, including teachers, use it incorrectly all the time. Even movies and TV shows that normally make a great effort toward fact-checking get it wrong.

Negative in behavioural terms just means removing something. Subtracting it, so to speak.
Reinforcement means I wish to encourage more of a behaviour.

So, negative reinforcement means that I remove something unpleasant or limiting and want the effect to be that you will do something again or more often.


  • You get an A and I lift your curfew.
  • You show me you understand how to be careful on the internet and I remove the filters and let you surf wherever you want to.
  • You demonstrate perfect use of a vocabulary word and I let you stop reviewing that vocab card.

Hey wait 😮 – you somehow brought this back to vocab! This isn’t one of your SAT entries. No, it isn’t. But it does fit nicely into a point I made here in the SAT essay Don’t Panic blog entry. If you aren’t sure you are using a word or phrase correctly, use something else instead.



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