Language Matters - December 6, 2021 - 3 min

Feeling Positively Perplexed About Positive and Negative

Out of all the words in the English language that could lead you down a rabbit hole, positive and negative would probably not immediately come to mind. Positive and negative are often roughly equated to “good” and “bad” respectively, but if we dig a little deeper, we discover it’s not always quite so simple. This basic equivalence may work when talking about the optimistic attitude of a friend, or the dismal critical reviews of a new movie, but as we’ll see, scientists, mathematicians and lawyers all have their own distinct takes on the terms. After all, hearing “positive results” in a doctor’s office can be just as wonderful when discussing a new treatment as it might be horrifying when receiving test results.

Positive Minus the Negative

Although positive and negative may seem like necessary counterparts to each other, always two sides of the same coin, there are times when a positive simply doesn’t have a negative pair. This is most commonly seen in the sense of expressing certainty. The phrase “I’m positive I left my bag here” would not turn into “I’m negative I left my bag here” if one were unsure about the leaving of the bag, or even if one were absolutely certain about not having left it.

A slightly more obscure example is found in grammar: the positive form of adjectives and adverbs. In this case, positive isn’t meant to communicate anything about the value of an adjective or adverb, but simply to label it as being in a base, uninflected form. Take the adjective red, for example, which is said to be in its positive state. Its non-positive forms are the comparative redder, and the superlative reddest. Red simply doesn’t have a “negative” form. In fact, all adjectives and adverbs have a positive form, but none have a negative. As for laws, positive refers to human-made laws, in contrast to “natural laws”: laws posited by humans, rather than dictated by a superhuman authority.

Scientific and Technical Uses

Things can get even murkier when we enter the sciences. Many will be familiar with positive and negative charges on protons and electrons, the positive and negative poles of a magnet, or positive and negative numbers, which sit on either side of zero. In a lab, positive and negative indicate the presence or absence of something in particular—for example an organism, like a bacterium, a type of tissue, like cancerous cells in a biopsy, or even a substance, like an illicit drug in a urine sample. But what about in the botanical terms positive and negative phototropism? Phototropism, the growth of a plant determined by light, can be positive when a plant grows toward the light and negative when a plant grows away from it. In this, and in other cases like it, positive and negative convey directional information, which is certainly not a meaning likely to come up in casual conversation. 

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Scientific terms don’t always stay in the classroom or the lab; they sometimes make their way to dinner tables and cocktail parties. A prominent example of this comes to us from the behaviourist movement in psychology. Everywhere from animal training to self-improvement, you’re likely to have heard the expressions positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement thrown around, but how many times have you encountered positive punishment and negative punishment? The four expressions together form the basis of operant conditioning—a method for influencing animal and human behaviour developed by the Psychologist B.F. Skinner in the 1930s—but only the two forms of reinforcement found their way into the layperson’s lexicon. Contrary to their popular use, both positive and negative reinforcement are responses to desired behaviour: they are rewards meant to encourage (or reinforce) said behaviour. Positive reinforcement comes in the form of something enjoyable that is given in response to the desired behaviour, like a treat given to a dog when it performs the trick you are trying to teach it. Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, is a reward that consists of removing something unpleasant. An example of this would be rewarding your child for practising the piano by reducing the number of chores they have to do that week. The two forms of punishment reflect this same pattern. Positive punishment is something unpleasant given in response to undesired behaviour you hope to discourage (a slap on the wrist, a stern talking-to, a time-out, etc.), whereas negative punishment consists of taking away something pleasant as the penalty (removing TV privileges, cutting an outing short, taking away a toy, etc.). In this context, we encounter yet another sense for positive and negative: roughly, “given” and “taken away”, respectively. Perhaps the closest parallel is to that of the mathematical symbols for addition and subtraction. Rephrasing positive and negative reinforcement and punishment as additive and subtractive reinforcement and punishment might be more revealing of their true meaning.

Likely influenced by the more common meanings of positive and negative, in popular use positive reinforcement is loosely reinterpreted as “good feedback” and is taken to apply to all forms of encouragement, thus collapsing both categories of reinforcement under this one term. Following this same logic, the seemingly opposite phrase negative reinforcement is then reinterpreted as “bad feedback” and encompasses all forms of discouragement, taking the place of both forms of punishment in popular use. Some object to this lack of terminological rigour because it dilutes the concepts at play, and opens the door to ambiguity and miscommunication. Others may argue that despite this misuse, the basic concepts of operant conditioning are well grasped by most who use these terms casually, and what is lost in nuance and specificity is likely gained in simplicity and accessibility.

Ending on a Positive Note

As we’ve seen with positive and negative, even the most commonplace of words can hide a deep trove of linguistics treasure, and a rich and interesting history if you take the time to dig a little deeper.

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