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Last updated February 19, 2001


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Reinforcement Theory

Explanation of Theory:

Attitude changes result from an opinion change produced through reinforcement in areas such as attention, comprehension and acceptance.

Theorist: Hovland, Janis and Kelly 

Date:  1967

Primary Article:

     Hovland, Janis & Kelly. (1967 )Reinforcement Theory. In Elliot, R.M., Lindzey, G.,MacCorquodale, K., (Eds), Theories of Attitude Change, 12-63.

Individual Interpretations:

Attention, comprehension and acceptance are considered by the audience before a new opinion is adopted.  The message must be attention-getting and easy to understand. More importantly, it must be presented in a way that reinforces the idea's validity.

Metatheoretical Assumptions:

Ontological Assumption:
The theory is very deterministic and therefore scientific. It seeks to predict a group or individual's reaction to reinforcement.

Epistemological Assumption:
Reinforcement theory falls along the scientific side of the spectrum. It presents persuasion as a process with right and wrong steps.

Axiological Assumption:
Being scientifically well-rounded, Reinforcement theory maintains a value neutral stance. The steps given are seen as applying to the population as a whole with little exception.


While very thorough, Reinforcement Theory does not take into account other possible motivators than those presented by the researcher. However, it provides a fairly reliable method of predicting attitude changes though the explanation can be vague. 

Ideas and Implications:

Reinforcement Theory does not define what constitutes a reinforcement. The examples of reinforcement cited in the research cover such a broad range, from an 'A' to a verbal "nice shirt," that the only commonality appears to be their positive nature. This is highly individualistic in that what is positive to one person may be an insult to another.


A public relations practitioner is conducting a week long campaign for "Organ Donation Awareness Week".  S/he conducts a pre-campaign phone survey providing positive reinforcement for pro-organ donation answers for two groups and no reinforcement for the other two groups. All groups have an opposing position to organ donation. 

One group from each, reinforcement and no reinforcement,  are in the target area of the campaign. According to Reinforcement Theory, the people in the areas that received the reinforcement and the campaign will have  the greatest  change in attitude toward organ donation. The next should be the group that received the reinforcement without the campaign closely followed by those who received the campaign but not the reinforcement. The group with the least amount of attitude change would be those who reached no reinforcement and did not receive the campaign.

Relevant Research:

     Slade, P.D., & Owens, R.G. (1998). A dual process model of perfectionism based on reinforcement theory, Behavior Modification, (22)3, 372-391.

Location in Eight (8) Primary Communication Theory Textbooks:

     Anderson, R., & Ross, V. (1998). Questions of communication: A practical introduction to theory (2nd ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press.  N/A

     Cragan, J. F., & Shields, D.C. (1998). Understanding communication theory: The communicative forces for human action. Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon. N/A

     Griffin, E. (2000). A first look at communication theory (4th ed.). Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill. N/A

     Griffin, E. (1997). A first look at communication theory (3rd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill. N/A

      Infante, D. A., Rancer, A. S., & Womack, D. F. (1997). Building communication theory (3rd ed.). Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. N/A

      Littlejohn, S. W. (1999). Theories of human communication (6th ed). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A

      West, R., & Turner, L. H. (2000). Introducing communication theory: Analysis and application. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield. N/A

       Wood, J. T. (1997). Communication theories in action: An introduction. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth. N/A