Positive Reinforcement Better for Adolescents

Businessman with one thumb up and one thumb down

A recent study found that adolescents respond best to positive reinforcement.
Image: Shutterstock

For about as long as we’ve understood the concepts, educators, parents, lawmakers, psychologists, and others have debated whether positive or negative reinforcement works better. Some argue that rewarding students will keep them on track and doing what they should, while others have argued that punishing criminals will prevent them from becoming repeat offenders. Now, thanks to a study by French researchers, we have a better idea of what works–but it’s not a simple answer.

According to the study, adolescents learn better from positive reinforcement and in fact seem to have a hard time learning from negative reinforcement. Adults, meanwhile, have an easier time understanding both and are able to learn from what would have happened had they made the wrong choice.

Groups of both were given a simple test where they were shown symbols that were associated with positive, negative, or neutral outcomes. While both groups were good at choosing the positive symbols, adolescents weren’t as good at avoiding the negative symbols. And furthermore, when told what would have happened if they had chosen the other symbol in the pair, the adults took that information into account with subsequent choices, but the adolescents didn’t.

This research gives us some insight into how to handle education because it finally helps settle the debate about positive and negative reinforcement. Adolescents respond better to positive reinforcement and seem incapable of conceptualizing negative outcomes. Apparently, that behavior is still being learned. That isn’t to say that negative reinforcement never works, but it doesn’t work as well, and it stands to reason that focusing on positive reinforcement could lead to better results when teaching adolescents. Not that we shouldn’t try to teach them right from wrong, but rewarding their successes instead of punishing their failures might help them succeed more often.

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