Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Reinforcement theory

core definition

Reinforcement theory maintains that people seek out, absorb and recall information that supports their pre-existing attitude, dispositions and beliefs.

explanatory context

Reinforcement theory is a positivist psychological theory derived from the work of Thorndike and Skinner and subsequently applied to the impact of the mass media by Klapper. It broadly says that rather than external stimuli impacting on people, such stimuli reinforce those things that people are predisposed to embrace.


Reinforcement theory argues that the media confirm audience beliefs and attitudes rather than create new ones (Schramm and Roberts, 1971). The media only change opinions if the audience are predisposed to change. For example, the media are unable to change political and religious beliefs but their influence on fashion and popular music is considerable (McQuail, 1983). In a study of voting habits, Lazarsfeld et al. (1944) showed that the media strengthened political opinion rather than changed it.

analytical review

Management Study Guide (2008–13) adresses the reinforcement theory of motivations:

Reinforcement theory of motivation was proposed by BF Skinner and his associates. It states that individual’s behaviour is a function of its consequences. It is based on “law of effect”, i.e, individual’s behaviour with positive consequences tends to be repeated, but individual’s behaviour with negative consequences tends not to be repeated.

Reinforcement theory of motivation overlooks the internal state of individual, i.e., the inner feelings and drives of individuals are ignored by Skinner. This theory focuses totally on what happens to an individual when he takes some action. Thus, according to Skinner, the external environment of the organization must be designed effectively and positively so as to motivate the employee. This theory is a strong tool for analyzing controlling mechanism for individual’s behaviour. However, it does not focus on the causes of individual’s behaviour.

McLeod (2007) states:

Skinner is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning, but his work was based on Thorndike’s (1905) law of effect. Skinner introduced a new term into the Law of Effect —Reinforcement. Behavior which is reinforced tends to be repeated (i.e. strengthened); behavior which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished (i.e. weakened)....

B.F. Skinner (1938) coined the term operant conditioning; it means roughly changing of behavior by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response. Skinner identified three types of responses or operant that can follow behavior:

• Neutral operants: responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.
• Reinforcers: Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative.
• Punishers: Response from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior.

Heath (2007) attributes reinforcement theory as applied to the mass media to Klapper:

Reinforcement theory was proposed in 1960 by Joseph T. Klapper to challenge the dominant media effects theory, which had become popular during the middle decades of the 20th century. Reinforcement theory argued that the media do not have a dominant effect on readers', viewers', or listeners' attitudes, beliefs, and motives. The effect is limited or minimal, largely because people filter life experiences selectively.


Lamb, B., undated:

Reinforcement theory. A theory of communication and media influence developed by Joseph Klapper in 1960. Klapper argued that the mass media does not have the ability to influence audiences and they are more likely to be influenced by their family, schools, communities and religious institutions.


An anonymous site with the following title 'Mass Media and Society: Media Effects' discusses Reinforcement Theory:

One theory says that media violence decreases the probability of violence by the viewer. Two others say that it will increase the probability of violence. And then there is the Reinforcement Theory that debunks both.
The central assumption of this theory is that media portrayals reinforce established behaviors viewers bring with them to the media situation. Violent portrayals will increase the likelihood of violent or aggressive behavior for those who accept violence and aggression as normal. It will decrease the likelihood of aggression and violence for those brought up to believe that violence is bad. Violence merely reinforces prior beliefs.
Instead of looking for blame in a violent media portrayal, the Reinforcement theorist would say that if you want to predict an outcome, look at the viewer's background. Look at the person's cultural norms and views of social roles. If person grows up in a crime?]ridden neighborhood, then violent portrayals are more likely to lead to violence.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Researching the Real World Section 1


Anonymous, undated, 'Mass Media and Society: Media Effects', available at, accessed 11 April 2013.

Heath, R.L., 2007, Reinforcement theory' in Heath, R.L., Encyclopedia of Public Relations. Sage, available at accessed 11 April 2013, page not freely available 27 December 2016.

Lamb, B., undated, Glossary, available at, accessed 1 June 2019.

Lazarsfeld, P.F., Berelson, B. and Gaudet, H., [1944] 1968, The People's Choice: How the voter makes up his mind in a Presidential campaign (third edition). New York, Columbia University Press.

Management Study Guide (2008–13), 'Reinfocement theory', available at accessed 11 April 2013, still available 14 June 2019.

McLeod, S., 2007, 'Skinner—Operant Conditioning' available at, accessed 12 April 2013, updated 2015, still available 14 June 2019.

McQuail, D., 1983, Mass Communication Theory. An introduction. London, Sage.

Schramm, W. and Roberts, D.F., (Eds.), 1971, The Process and Effects of Mass Communication (revised edition). Urbana, University of Illinois Press.

Skinner, B. F., 1938, The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York, Appleton-Century.

Thorndike, E. L., 1905, The Elements of Psychology. New York, A. G. Seiler.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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