Accidental Reward

An accidental reward occurs when an undesirable behavior is rewarded and therefore reinforced, increasing its likelihood in the future. While accidental rewards usually occur when trying to teach someone a behavior, they can also occur in mundane circumstances and may only require one individual.

Accidental Reward in Behaviorism
B.F. Skinner developed the concept of operant conditioning to explain how even relatively unintelligent animals can learn seemingly complex behaviors. Behaviorists argue that the likelihood of a behavior is increased when the behavior is repeatedly rewarded or punished. A rat, for example, might repeatedly pull a lever in a box if he learns that pulling the lever gets him a reward. Animal trainers frequently use behaviorist conditioning to teach animals tricks, and often focus on avoiding unintentionally rewarding the wrong behavior. For example, a dog owner who gives their dog a treat every time the dog becomes aggressive in an attempt to calm the dog down is accidentally rewarding the undesirable behavior. If this reward occurs frequently enough, the dog will associate aggression with rewards may become more aggressive.

Accidental Reward in Learning
Accidental rewards are a common part of learning. Teachers who, for example, allow students to skip homework assignments that are too difficult are accidentally rewarding the students and may be encouraging them to avoid trying, to feel incompetent, or to underperform. Accidental rewards are often addressed in parenting literature. Many parents, in an attempt to avoid momentary embarrassment or frustration, reward their children for undesirable behavior. When a child throws a tantrum because he or she wants to leave a store, a parent might leave the store because they are embarrassed. Thus the child learns not only that throwing a tantrum is an effective strategy, but also that tantrums can get him/her the attention he/she craves. Many parenting books advise parents to ignore bad behavior in an attempt to avoid giving accidental rewards such as attention and reinforcement of negative behaviors.


  1. American Psychological Association. APA concise dictionary of psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2009. Print.
  2. Colman, A. M. (2006). Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Last Updated: 08-4-2015

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