V. Differential Reinforcement
Similar to the mechanism of differential association, whereby an imbalance of norms, values, and attitudes favorable toward committing a deviant or criminal act increases the probability that an individual will engage in such behavior, an imbalance in differential reinforcement also increases the likelihood that an individual will commit a given behavior. Furthermore, the past, present, and future anticipated and/or experienced rewards and punishments affect the probability that an individual will participate in a behavior in the first place and whether he or she continues or refrains from the behavior in the future. The differential reinforcement process operates in four key modes: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.
Consider the following scenario. John is a quiet and shy boy who has difficulty making friends. Two of his classmates approach him on the playground and tell him that they will be his friend if he hits another boy because they do not like this particular child. John may know that hitting others is not right, but he decides to go along with their suggestion in order to gain their friendship. Immediately after he punches the boy, his classmates smile with approval and invite John to come over to their house after school to play with them. This peer approval serves as positive reinforcement for the assault. Positive reinforcement can also be provided when a behavior yields an increase in status, money, awards, or pleasant feelings.
Negative reinforcement can increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated if the act allows the individual to escape or avoid adverse or unpleasant stimuli. For example, Chris hates driving to and home from work because every day he has to drive through the same speed trap on the interstate. One day, Chris decides to come into work 1 hour early so he can in turn leave 1 hour early. Chris realizes that by coming in early and subsequently leaving early, he is able to avoid the speed trap because the officers are not posted on the interstate during his new travel times. He repeats this new travel schedule the following day, and once again he avoids the speed trap. His behavior (coming in an hour early and leaving an hour early) has now been negatively reinforced because he avoids the speed trap (i.e., the negative stimulus).
In contrast to reinforcers (positive and negative), there are positive and negative punishers that serve to increase or decrease the probability of a particular behavior being repeated. For example, Rachel has always had a designated driver when she decides to go out to the bar on Friday nights, but on one particular night she decides to drive herself to and from the local bar. On her way home, she gets pulled over for crossing the yellow line and is arrested for driving under the influence. Her decision and subsequent behavior to drink and drive resulted in a painful and unpleasant consequence: an arrest (a positive punishment).
This last scenario is an example of negative punishment. Mark’s mom decides to buy him a new car but tells him not to smoke cigarettes in the car. Despite his mom’s warning, Mark and his friends still decide to smoke cigarettes in the vehicle. His mom smells the odor when she chooses to drive his car to the grocery store one day and decides to take away Mark’s driving privileges for 2 months for not following her rules. Mark’s behavior (smoking cigarettes in the car) has now been negatively punished (removal of driving privileges).
Similar to differential association, there are modalities for differential reinforcement; more specifically, rewards that are higher in value and/or are greater in number are more likely to increase the chances that a behavior will occur and be repeated. Akers clarified that the reinforcement process does not necessarily occur in an either–or fashion but instead operates according to a quantitative law of effect wherein the behaviors that occur most frequently and are highly reinforced are chosen in favor of alternative behaviors.