Positive and Negative Reinforcement

What is memory without forgetfulness?

Nietzche, author of The Genealogy of Morality, talks about humankind’s unique ability to make promises, in other words, to have the ability to plan for the future. To make promises requires us to have both a good memory and confidence in fulfilling that promise. With every word, there is always an opposing force. In this case, the opposing force to memory is forgetfulness.

Forgetfulness is not just a vis inertiae, as superficial people believe, but is rather an active ability to suppress, positive in the strongest sense of the word, to which we owe the fact that what we simply live through, experience, take in, no more enters our consciousness during digestion (one could call it spiritual ingestion) than does the thousand-fold process which takes place with our physical consumption of food, our so-called ingestion (page 35).

Making promises led to negative consequences. In the past, individuals would make promises to repay lenders. Whether or not this individual forgot to repay their lenders, if they failed to fulfill this promise, they were considered to be “in debt” to their lender. The lender then has the ability to “punish” this individual as a consequence of breaking a promise.

Nietzsche suggests that the best way to help individual’s remember or keep their promises was to cause physical pain. He states that inflicting pain helps us form memories and is a good way of conditioning us. He also suggests that a civilized society, such as today’s society, whose type of punishment is imprisonment, is also another form of punishment that can enforce individuals to remember. No matter what the punishment was, experiments have shown that reinforcement, positive or negative, works.

Famous psychologist and behaviorist Burrhus Frederic Skinner, also known as B.F. Skinner, was well known for his work in operant conditioning. In his experiments, he demonstrates how positive and negative reinforcements work.

He shows how positive reinforcement works by placing a hungry rat in a box that contained a lever. Every time the rat would accidentally push the lever, a pellet would drop into the box. After repeatedly placing the rat inside the box, the rat immediately learned to push the lever in order receive food. This is considered positive reinforcement. It strengthens a behavior in the rat by providing a reward.

B.F. Skinner also shows how negative reinforcement works by doing a similar experiment, except this time, there is no reward but rather an unpleasant reinforcer. He places a rat in a box where it receives an unpleasant electric shock. The rat would move about the box until it accidentally pushed a lever, which caused the electric current to stop. After repeatedly placing the rat inside this electrocuted box, the rat soon learned that the lever turned off the electric shocks and would immediately run to it when being placed in the box. This is called negative reinforcement. It strengthens a behavior in the rat through unpleasant reinforcers.

Both positive and negative reinforcements cause a strengthen behavior. Nietzsche’s believes that physical punishment is the best way to cause reinforcement but I believe that positive reinforcement is just as effective as negative reinforcement, as demonstrated by B.F. Skinner.