Positive Reinforcement - One of the Four - JoinRats
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Positive Reinforcement —
One of the Four … Four What? *

Before tackling this subject, try starting with HOW RATS LEARN and the dive deeply into the GOLDEN ONE, Positive Reinforcement.

It’s One of the Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

“Operant Conditioning deals with operants – intentional actions [by the rat, for example – gwen] that have an effect on the surrounding environment [for example, human offers food – gwen]”.

If the rat gets a treat after he hops onto the scale, hopping onto the scale “causes treats!”

There are two dimensions to operant conditioning, which are represented in the chart to the right:

  1. Something is either positively added in, or negatively removed from the situation or environment.
  2. Behavior will either strengthen/ increase (be reinforced), or weaken/reduce (be punished).

More here: Links to references on Operant Conditioning – Basics!

operant-conditioning-matrix8

Positive Reinforcement – For Our Rats, It’s Everything

What about the terms, ‘Reward’ or ‘Treat’ – why won’t you see them here? Reward or treat are loose terms that are better termed, Reinforcer, as in, “I delivered the reinforcer immediately after she took a step in my direction”.


  1. REINFORCEMENT means to STRENGTHEN or INCREASE the likelihood of a behavior occuring MORE in the future. “Reinforcement” is also used in a mathematical sense.
  2. POSITIVE means to ADD something, as in mathematically increase. Something (a stimulus) is added to the situation/environment immediately after the behavior occurs.
  3. If the rat does a behavior, immediately after which something is added to the situation, and if the result is an increase or strengthening of behavior in the future, then positive reinforcement occurred.

Watch for: the Antecedent (what comes before), the Behavior, and the Consequence.

  1. Example:
    1. Your rat observes you arrive at the cage and open the door (Antecedent).
    2. She takes a step in your direction (Behavior).
    3. You immediately deliver a reinforcer – a food reward she likes (Consequence).

If, with reinforcement over time, the rat’s behavior of coming towards you strengthens reliably, positive reinforcement occurred.


Read More:

Behavior References to Positive Reinforcement – Basics
Use Positive Reinforcement To Help Rats Trust

Negative Reinforcement


In negative reinforcement, the rat is willing to do more of a behavior in order to get something removed from the environment. She works to remove an aversive.

  1. REINFORCEMENT means to STRENGTHEN or INCREASE the likelihood of a behavior occuring MORE in the future. “Reinforcement” is used in a mathematical sense.
  2. NEGATIVE means to REMOVE something, as in mathematically subtract, from the environment. The something (a stimulus) is removed immediately after a behavior occurs.
  3. If the rat does a behavior, immediately after which something is removed from the situation, and if the result is an increase or strengthening of the behavior in the future, then negative reinforcement occurred.

Watch for: the Antecedent (what comes before), the Behavior, and the Consequence.

  1. Example:
    1. You offer a small box to your rat, wanting her to go inside. She starts to move in, stops with her head just inside the opening. You use your hand to exert gentle pressure on her back end (Antecedent).
    2. She moves forward into the box (Behavior). This is the behavior you want to see more of = REINFORCE
    3. By moving into the box, the rat no longer feels your hand pressure (Consequence). NEGATIVE because the hand pressure ceased.
  2. In this example the rat is willing to behave – move into the box – operate on her environment – to make the pressure go away.

    If the the rat’s behavior of more easily moving into the box that you offer her strengthens reliably in the future, negative reinforcement occurred.

  3. Example:
    1. A recently rescued rat, who was abused at her former home, who is generally frightened of humans, watches attentatively from the back of the cage as you stand at the cage door. You stand quietly and do nothing (Antecedent).
    2. She sniffs some paper next to her (Behavior). Taking her attention off of you briefly is an example of a calm behavior, the behavior you want to REINFORCE.
    3. You, the aversive in her mind, move 10 feet back (Consequence). Taking yourself out = NEGATIVE.
  4. In this example it is the human who is the aversive. We give the rat what she wants/desires – the human to go away – we REINFORCE contingent on her brief calm behaviors. With repetitions, if the the rat’s relaxed behavior strengthens reliably in the future, negative reinforcement has occurred.


Read More:

For the first example: Behavioral Science Articles on Constructional Aggression (or Approach) Treatment
A Good Relationship with Fearful or Aggressive Pet Rats (RAT-C)

Negative Punishment


Punishment, as a scientific term, does not mean the everyday sense of inflicting pain or discomfort, such as hitting, or other forms of inflicting physical pain. However, an aversive is present in some form.

  1. PUNISHMENT means to DECREASE the likelihood of a behavior occuring in the future. “Punishment”, to lessen, or reduce, is meant in a mathematical sense.
  2. NEGATIVE means to REMOVE something, as in mathematically subtract. Something (a stimulus) is removed from the situation or environment immediately after the behavior occurs.
  3. If the rat does a behavior, immediately after which something is removed from the situation, and if the result is a lessening of the occurence of the behavior in the future, then negative punishment occurred.

Watch for: the Antecedent (what comes before), the Behavior, and the Consequence.

  1. Example:
    1. You approach the cage to offer treats to your rat, but you do not want him to hop up onto the door rim. You offer treats to him as he sits nicely inside the cage (Antecedent).
    2. Suddenly he hops up onto the cage door rim (Behavior).
    3. You move quickly back and stop offering treats (Consequence).
  2. To reduce your backing away (backing away = NEGATIVE), he chooses to not jump (PUNISHMENT occurs) to the cage door rim. With repetitions, if the rat’s behavior of suddenly hopping onto the cage door rim decreases reliably, NEGATIVE PUNISHMENT occurred.


Read More:

Behavior References on Ethics
A Good Relationship with Fearful or Aggressive Pet Rats (RAT-C)

Positive Punishment


This method is not recommended when working with pet rats (or any species, for that matter).

Punishment does not mean what we normally think of, such as spanking, or causing pain, such as ‘flicking’ a rat’s nose, but aversives are present.

  1. POSITIVE means to ADD something, as in mathematically adding. Something (a stimulus) is added to the environment immediately after the behavior occurs.
  2. PUNISHMENT means to DECREASE the frequency of the behavior. “Punishment” means to lessen, or weaken, in a mathematical sense.
  3. If the rat does a behavior, immediately after which something is added to the environment, and if the result is a reduction or lessening of the occurence of the behavior over time, then positive punishment occurred.

WARNING: There are side-effects to the use of aversives that go on concurrently when applying this method. After all issues are taken into account, POSITIVE PUNISHMENT should not be used to modify the behavior of any animal, except in an emergency.


Watch for: the Antecedent (what comes before), the Behavior, and the Consequence.

  1. Example:
    1. Your rat is playing with you a bit roughly (Antecedent).
    2. He nips nips you a little bit hard, but does not draw blood (Behavior). This is the behavior you want reduced = PUNISH.
    3. You exert light pressure with your hand to briefly squash him in place (Consequence). Adding the squash-in-place = POSITIVE.
  2. With repetitions, if the rat reliably nips less hard in the future, POSITIVE PUNISHMENT has occurred.

  3. Example:
    1. Your rat loves playing on the bed, but just for awhile (Antecedent).
    2. Eventually she tries to climb down off the side of the bed (Behavior).
    3. You intervene and push her back onto the bed, away from the edge (Consequence).
  4. The hand block/push was added (POSITIVE), to reduce (PUNISH) the rat’s attempts to jump off. With repetitions, if she stops trying to climb down off the bed, positive punishment occurred.



A few examples (not exhaustive) of undesirable side-effects that can happen in the above examples:

  • Telling the rat to NOT do something is not telling him what TO DO DIFFERENTLY or INSTEAD (desirable behaviors).
  • The aversive feels like aggression (Ken Rameriz, A Weekend at the Marin Humane Society, Novato, California, 12/13/2015).
  • In general, either immediately or over time, trust erodes.
  • Animals, rats included, will stop the undesired behavior temporarily, but only temporarily. The rat does not learn in a way where the behavior “sticks”.
  • Your rat develops a negative association to your hand.
  • The rat doesn’t like being blocked, and will communicate that to you. For example, he may nip you to tell you he doesn’t like what you just did. He may increase his nipping if you do not comply with HIS attempt (using positive punishment) to reduce your hand-blocking behavior.
  • Using positive punishment often means using more positive punishment in the future, as the human keeps trying to make the point.
  • The two examples offered here are simple ones. In actuality, for positive punishment to be carried out in a way that is deeply effective, several other conditions must be met – yet, they still will not eliminate negative side effects of using positive punishment. These additional requirements are beyond the scope of this page, but in the end they tell us that use of positive punishment should be avoided except for extreme emergencies.


Read More:

No material on JoinRats will promote using this method.

Behavior References on Ethics
Behavior References on the Power of Trust
Aversives: The Bad and The Ugly
Stress In the Way that Is Not Good

(*Many thanks to Cathi Cline and Mary Hunter, who generously shared their comments on an early draft of this page, with particular focus on Negative Reinforcement. In the end, any errors in content are my own.)
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