The Biology of Reinforcement and Punishment

Categories: Behavior change, BMT Courses, Punishment, ReinforcementTags: , , Author:

You may have heard of the 4:1 rule; we should deliver four positive pieces of feedback for every constructive one.  This recommendation is based in scientific research.  Effective teachers follow this rule.  So do high performing teams.  Even happy marriages seem to follow this pattern.  In fact, in some cases, the suggested ratio is even higher.  In courses, I ask the class what they think the ratio is for marriages that end in divorce and they tend to guess 1:4 but research says that a 1:1 ratio is enough to steer people toward divorce court.

Why do we need so much more positive reinforcement?  The answer is probably in our DNA.


Back in our caveman days, we benefited from short acting effects of reinforcement.  When we found a piece of fruit that was delicious and nutritious, our behavior of going to that spot to find food was reinforced.  But if that reinforcement sustained for too long and we didn’t find food there again for a while but continued to look, we might have ended up starving.  We needed reinforcement to be short-lived so we would try something new if the previous behavior wasn’t working.  It turns out that short-lived reinforcement makes our behavior more agile, we adjust based on where we are getting reinforcement.

Sometimes it can be frustrating to have to deliver so much reinforcement to shape behavior and keep it going, but the upside is that it means we can change behavior fast.


In contrast, cavemen and cavewomen benefitted from punishment having a long lasting effect.  If they ate something that made them sick, it was good for them to have an aversion to it for a long time, it helped them stay healthy.  If the impact of punishment was fleeting and they needed to keep testing to learn something was bad for them, they probably weren’t going to live for very long.

The short duration of reinforcement effects and the long duration of punishment effects was very functional for us back in our hunter gatherer days, but it is probably less functional for us today.  Yet, this tendency still impacts us now.  If most of our interactions with our boss are positive and just a few are negative, those few negative ones hold a lot of weight, maybe more than what seems logically fair from the boss’s perspective.

In addition, if our spouse screws up, we might be more likely to rehash the event a few years later than we would be to remember the nice thing they did for us the day before.  This means we have to be really careful about how much punishment we deliver to others.  The long lasting effects of punishment can sometimes result in substantial damage to a relationship that takes an enormous effort to repair.  Of course, acknowledging the misstep and apologizing can make that process move much more quickly.

6 Responses to The Biology of Reinforcement and Punishment

  1. Amanda says:

    Your example illustrating how reinforcers and punishers differ with respect to how long they influence our behavior is phenomenal. I really like the evolutionary interpretation too. Thank you for this fantastic piece, Nicole!

  2. Nicole says:

    Thanks, Amanda! Sometimes it is really helpful for understanding if we boil the science down to simple examples.

  3. Maxin says:

    Actually there is no scientific research regarding the 4:1 rule. It is one of those myths passed on, usually by lay people, not behavioral scientists. I’m not sure where it all started, perhaps Charlie Madsen’s research in classrooms in the 60’s but he didn’t determine that a 4 to 1 ratio produces behavior change without the punishing effects of the one event. So whiie it is a nice goal to achieve–and very few teachers do achieve this goal–it is not based upon scientific research.

    • Nicole says:

      Thanks for your comment.

      There is scientific research to back that statement, although 4:1 is an underestimate of most of the research. This wikipedia page highlights the research with high performing teams

      Gottman has also conducted research on it for happy marriages.

      There is teacher research available as well, if I get a chance to look it up I will post it.

    • Amanda says:

      Great discussion!!

      From my understanding of this line of research, Nicole is correct in that there are scientific data (i.e., correlational studies) to support the most effective ratio. Correlational findings have been supported in a variety of fields. Goleman (2003), Gottman (1994), Beaman and Wheldall (2000), and Losada (1999) provide correlational data to support a high ratio of positive to negative feedback in neurological studies, marriage studies, classroom studies, and business studies, respectively.

      Again, from my understanding of this line of research, Maxin too is correct in that there are no experimental studies to support the assertion that a 4:1 ratio is the most effective ratio.

      Have no fear, haha! I hope to provide our community with experimental data regarding the most effective ratio within the next year. So please stand by!! Actually, do whatever it is that you’re doing to contribute to the ‘great good’, and I’ll be happy to provide you with the results of my dissertation by May of 2014!!!

      All My Best,


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