Social Reinforcement: An In-depth Explanation

Social reinforcement is something all humans depend on to feel good about what they’re doing. It doesn’t matter if you’re being reinforced by friends and family or still at the point where it’s just you telling yourself you’re awesome. We all take part in social reinforcement at one time or another.

In this blog, we’ll explore the different types of social reinforcement and how they can be used in therapy. But first, let’s go through the basics.

What Is Social Reinforcement?

Social reinforcement is the process of rewarding people when they conform to social norms, reinforce those norms, or behave in a way that is consistent with what others expect from them. It can be positive or negative and involve rewards such as praise or recognition or punishments like discipline or reprimand.

The definition of social reinforcement is ‘any stimulus or event that increases the probability of occurrence of a behavior.’ This can include verbal praise or physical rewards such as food or money. These are used in therapy because they encourage people to change their behavior for the better.

For example, when someone takes an exam and does well, they may receive praise from their teacher or friends. This praise will increase the likelihood that they’ll do well on future tests and exams so they can get more praise!

Why Does Social Reinforcement Exist?

Social reinforcement is a strong force in our lives that can motivate people to do things they wouldn’t normally do. It is a powerful reinforcer because it comes from other people, and we are highly motivated to please them. We seek approval, admiration, and love from others, which drives us to engage in many social activities that bring us closer and build relationships.

It can be used to help us change our behavior. For example, if you want your child to clean their room, it doesn’t work to tell them what needs to be done. Instead of just telling them what to do, you would be pleased if they did it themselves.

Social reinforcement is something that everyone naturally does when they see someone else doing something good or valuable for themselves or others. You might clap when someone gets an award at work or congratulate them on their success when they tell you about it. You might even let them know how proud of them you are after they’ve achieved something extraordinary in their lives!

Automatic vs. Social Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a way to increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur again. There are two main types of reinforcement: automatic and social.

Automatic reinforcement is an event that naturally occurs in the environment. It can be as simple as hearing your favorite song on the radio, getting a text message from a friend, or seeing someone smile at you.

It is anything your brain interprets as positive feedback and rewards you with a ‘happy’ response. The more frequent the automatic reinforcement, the stronger its effect will be on your behavior.

On the other hand, social reinforcement occurs when others give us attention to our actions or praise us for something we’ve done well. This type of reinforcement is necessary because it can help us feel like we’re doing something right and encourage us to continue doing so in the future.

A Glimpse of Four Types of Reinforcement

Social reinforcement can take on many different forms, but there are four main types of social reinforcers:

  1. Positive Reinforcement: This type of social reinforcement uses positive statements or actions to encourage people to continue doing what they are already doing or to do something else. For instance, if you are trying to lose weight, you could tell yourself that you are doing great! You could also congratulate yourself on completing a workout or eating healthy food for dinner.
  2. Negative Reinforcement: Negative reinforcement is a behavioral modification that involves taking away something unpleasant (a negative) when a specific behavior occurs. For example, if a child continues to misbehave to avoid going home and doing homework, their misbehavior will be strengthened by removing the unpleasant task. The child has learned that misbehaving leads to removing an aversive stimulus (homework).
  3. Punishment: Punishment is the application of an unpleasant stimulus following behavior to discourage repetition. This process is believed to decrease the probability that a subject will behave similarly in the future. For example, if you want your child to clean up their room, you could take away their video game privileges for not completing the chore on time (or at all).
  4. Extinction: It involves removing the response so an ongoing behavior stops. For example, if someone says ‘good job’ after you’ve done something well but then stops saying this over time because they’re bored of saying it, this will stop increasing the likelihood of doing this particular thing again (i.e., stop giving praise).

Is Social Reinforcement Effective?

Social reinforcement uses praise and rewards to encourage a desired behavior or action. It is different from other types of reinforcement because it requires another person to provide the reward.

Social reinforcement is effective in changing behavior. It is most effective when you use it as part of a more extensive behavior modification program, such as one that includes positive punishment and negative punishment.

How Does Social Reinforcement Work?

Social reinforcement works because people want approval from others. When someone praises you for doing something well, you may be more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. This is especially true if you feel your efforts are not noticed or appreciated by your peers and colleagues.

The key to social reinforcement is consistency. It would help if you praised people regularly for their excellent work to see accurate results from using this reward system. If they do not see immediate results, they may lose interest in using this method of behavior modification altogether, which could have disastrous results for both parties involved!

Final Thoughts

In summing up social reinforcement, the findings indicate that this phenomenon accounts for much individual behavior. Just as animals and people must respond to the environment around them to survive, their responses are rewarded or punished. 

When you consider our tendency to be more influenced by negative reinforcement than positive reinforcement, it should make sense that we have become a society of worrywarts who often avoid punishment before risking reward.


  • Jones, R. M., Somerville, L. H., Li, J., Ruberry, E. J., Libby, V., Glover, G., Voss, H. U., Ballon, D. J., & Casey, B. J. (2011). Behavioral and neural properties of social reinforcement learning. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(37), 13039–13045. 
  • Hardy, J. K., & McLeod, R. H. (2020). Using positive reinforcement with young children. Beyond Behavior, 29(2), 95–107. 
  • Jean-Richard-Dit-Bressel, P., Killcross, S., & McNally, G. P. (2018). Behavioral and neurobiological mechanisms of punishment: Implications for psychiatric disorders. Neuropsychopharmacology, 43(8), 1639–1650.

Hi, I am Happy. I'm a professional writer and psychology enthusiast. I love to read and write about human behaviors, the mind, mental health-related topics, and more.