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A look at how the emotional consequences of a behaviour can reinforce it or reduce it.
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© University of York

A consequence (C) is what happens as a result of a behaviour.

Consequences are important because they influence whether a behaviour is repeated and strengthened, or whether it is reduced and stopped.

When we talk about “consequences” here, we mean feelings. These can be positive feelings, such as pleasure, a sense of achievement, high energy, feeling closer to someone, as well as negative feelings, such as feeling scared, angry, hopeless or tired. (Note that feelings can be bodily sensations and emotions).

You can think of positive feelings as “rewards” and negative feelings as “pain” (pain in a metaphorical or literal sense).

Behaviours that lead to rewards, or prevent pain, are more likely to be repeated (they are reinforced).

Behaviours that lead to pain, or have no rewards, are more likely to be reduced or avoided.

Four mechanisms that drive behaviour

The process of repeating a behaviour because it either leads to a reward or because it prevents pain is called reinforcement. Avoiding something because we expect it to lead to “pain” is driven by punishment, whereas the process of stopping or reducing activities because they are not rewarding is due to absence of positive reinforcement.

Here we look at each of these behavioural mechanisms in turn.

Positive reinforcement

Behaviours that are repeated because they lead to a reward are positively reinforced. Having hobbies, socialising and completing projects are typical activities that are positively reinforced because they are enjoyable and give people a sense of accomplishment when they are finished.

Negative reinforcement

Behaviours that are repeated because they prevent pain are negatively reinforced. Asking for reassurance and using distraction are typical behaviours that are negatively reinforced because we use them to prevent feeling overwhelmed or getting anxious; they tend to work short-term but paradoxically they end up reinforcing the feelings they try to prevent.


Avoidance is a typical behaviour driven by “painful” consequences. Pain here is used in its metaphorical sense as an unpleasant and negative feeling that stops us from doing things that we may find difficult or stressful. Pain can also be used literally, when physical pain or exhaustion stop us from engaging in productive or pleasant activities.

Absence of positive reinforcement

Absence of positive reinforcement leads to stopping or reducing activities because we see no point in them or we no longer care. Typically in depression, people lose interest and pleasure in day-to-day life; as a consequence, they stop doing things or do less of what they used to enjoy.

In the next activity we will look at how all of this may be applied to depression and, in doing so, introduce you to Sarah.

© University of York
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Introduction to Behavioural Activation for Depression

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