Punishment (psychology)

Last updated
Operant conditioning Extinction
Increase behaviour
Decrease behaviour
Positive Reinforcement
Add appetitive stimulus
following correct behavior
Negative ReinforcementPositive Punishment
Add noxious stimulus
following behaviour
Negative Punishment
Remove appetitive stimulus
following behavior
Remove noxious stimulus
following correct behaviour
Active Avoidance
Behaviour avoids noxious stimulus

In operant conditioning, punishment is any change in a human or animal's surroundings which, occurring after a given behavior or response, reduces the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. As with reinforcement, it is the behavior, not the human/animal, that is punished. Whether a change is or is not punishing is determined by its effect on the rate that the behavior occurs, not by any "hostile" or aversive features of the change. For example, a painful stimulus which would act as a punisher for most people may actually reinforce some behaviors of masochistic individuals.



There are two types of punishment in operant conditioning:

Punishment is not a mirror effect of reinforcement. In experiments with laboratory animals and studies with children, punishment decreases the likelihood of a previously reinforced response only temporarily, and it can produce other "emotional" behavior (wing-flapping in pigeons, for example) and physiological changes (increased heart rate, for example) that have no clear equivalents in reinforcement. [ citation needed ]

Punishment is considered by some behavioral psychologists to be a "primary process" – a completely independent phenomenon of learning, distinct from reinforcement. Others see it as a category of negative reinforcement, creating a situation in which any punishment-avoiding behavior (even standing still) is reinforced.


Positive punishment occurs when a response produces a stimulus and that response decreases in probability in the future in similar circumstances.


Negative punishment occurs when a response produces the removal of a stimulus and that response decreases in probability in the future in similar circumstances.

Versus reinforcement

Simply put, reinforcers serve to increase behaviors whereas punishers serve to decrease behaviors; thus, positive reinforcers are stimuli that the subject will work to attain, and negative reinforcers are stimuli that the subject will work to be rid of or to end. [1] The table below illustrates the adding and subtracting of stimuli (pleasant or aversive) in relation to reinforcement vs. punishment.

Rewarding (pleasant) stimulus Aversive (unpleasant) stimulus
Adding/PresentingPositive ReinforcementPositive Punishment
Removing/Taking AwayNegative PunishmentNegative Reinforcement


Aversive stimulus, punisher, and punishing stimulus are somewhat synonymous. Punishment may be used to mean

  1. An aversive stimulus
  2. The occurrence of any punishing change
  3. The part of an experiment in which a particular response is punished.

Some things considered aversive can become reinforcing. [2] In addition, some things that are aversive may not be punishing if accompanying changes are reinforcing. A classic example would be mis-behavior that is 'punished' by a teacher but actually increases over time due to the reinforcing effects of attention on the student.

Primary versus secondary

Pain, loud noises, foul tastes, bright lights, and exclusion are all things that would pass the "caveman test" as an aversive stimulus, and are therefore primary punishers. The sound of someone booing, the wrong-answer buzzer on a game show, and a ticket on your car windshield are all things you have learned to think about as negative, and are considered secondary punishers.


Contrary to suggestions by Skinner and others that punishment typically has weak or impermanent effects, [3] a large body of research has shown that it can have a powerful and lasting effect in suppressing the punished behavior. [4] [5] Furthermore, more severe punishments are more effective, and very severe ones may even produce complete suppression. [6] However, it may also have powerful and lasting side effects. For example, an aversive stimulus used to punish a particular behavior may also elicit a strong emotional response that may suppress unpunished behavior and become associated with situational stimuli through classical conditioning. [7] Such side effects suggest caution and restraint in the use of punishment to modify behavior. (Further reading:  Ayotte, R.; Muster, H.; Morais, F.; et al. "Positive and negative reinforcement and punishment effectiveness". Cognitive Sciences Stack Exchange. Retrieved 10 May 2017.)

Importance of contingency and contiguity

One variable affecting punishment is contingency, which is defined as the dependency of events. A behavior may be dependent on a stimulus or dependent on a response. The purpose of punishment is to reduce a behavior, and the degree to which punishment is effective in reducing a targeted behavior is dependent on the relationship between the behavior and a punishment. For example, if a rat receives an aversive stimulus, such as a shock each time it presses a lever, then it is clear that contingency occurs between lever pressing and shock. In this case, the punisher (shock) is contingent upon the appearance of the behavior (lever pressing). Punishment is most effective when contingency is present between a behavior and a punisher. A second variable affecting punishment is contiguity, which is the closeness of events in time and/or space. Contiguity is important to reducing behavior because the longer the time interval between an unwanted behavior and a punishing effect, the less effective the punishment will be. One major problem with a time delay between a behavior and a punishment is that other behaviors may present during that time delay. The subject may then associate the punishment given with the unintended behaviors, and thus suppressing those behaviors instead of the targeted behavior. Therefore, immediate punishment is more effective in reducing a targeted behavior than a delayed punishment would be. However, there may ways to improve the effectiveness of delayed punishment, such as providing verbal explanation, reenacting the behavior, increasing punishment intensity, or other methods. [8]

Applied behavior analysis

Punishment is sometimes used for in applied behavior analysis under the most extreme cases, to reduce dangerous behaviors such as head banging or biting exhibited most commonly by children or people with special needs. Punishment is considered one of the ethical challenges to autism treatment, has led to significant controversy, and is one of the major points for professionalizing behavior analysis. Professionalizing behavior analysis through licensure would create a board to ensure that consumers or families had a place to air disputes, and would ensure training in how to use such tactics properly. (see Professional practice of behavior analysis)

Controversy regarding ABA persists in the autism community. A 2017 study found that 46% of people with autism spectrum undergoing ABA appeared to meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a rate 86% higher than the rate of those who had not undergone ABA (28%). According to the researcher, the rate of apparent PTSD increased after exposure to ABA regardless of the age of the patient. [9] However, the quality of this study has been disputed by other researchers. [10]


Psychological manipulation

Braiker identified the following ways that manipulators control their victims: [11]

Traumatic bonding

Traumatic bonding occurs as the result of ongoing cycles of abuse in which the intermittent reinforcement of reward and punishment creates powerful emotional bonds that are resistant to change. [12] [13]

See also

Related Research Articles

B. F. Skinner American psychologist and social philosopher (1904-1990)

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was an American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher. He was a professor of psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.

Operant conditioning is a type of associative learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment. It is also a procedure that is used to bring about such learning.


In behavioral psychology, reinforcement is a consequence applied that will strengthen an organism's future behavior whenever that behavior is preceded by a specific antecedent stimulus. This strengthening effect may be measured as a higher frequency of behavior, longer duration, greater magnitude, or shorter latency. There are two types of reinforcement, known as positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement; positive is where by a reward is offered on expression of the wanted behaviour and negative is taking away an undesirable element in the persons environment whenever the desired behaviour is achieved. Rewarding stimuli, which are associated with "wanting" and "liking" and appetitive behavior, function as positive reinforcers; the converse statement is also true: positive reinforcers provide a desirable stimulus. Reinforcement does not require an individual to consciously perceive an effect elicited by the stimulus. Thus, reinforcement occurs only if there is an observable strengthening in behavior. However, there is also negative reinforcement, which is characterized by taking away an undesirable stimulus. Changing someone's job might serve as a negative reinforcer to someone who suffers from back problems, i.e. Changing from a labourers job to an office position for instance.

The experimental analysis of behavior is school of thought in psychology founded on B. F. Skinner's philosophy of radical behaviorism and defines the basic principles used in applied behavior analysis. A central principle was the inductive reasoning data-driven examination of functional relations, as opposed to the kinds of hypothetico-deductive learning theory that had grown up in the comparative psychology of the 1920–1950 period. Skinner's approach was characterized by observation of measurable behavior which could be predicted and controlled. It owed its early success to the effectiveness of Skinner's procedures of operant conditioning, both in the laboratory and in behavior therapy.

Behaviorism is a systematic approach to understanding the behavior of humans and other animals. It assumes that behavior is either a reflex evoked by the pairing of certain antecedent stimuli in the environment, or a consequence of that individual's history, including especially reinforcement and punishment contingencies, together with the individual's current motivational state and controlling stimuli. Although behaviorists generally accept the important role of heredity in determining behavior, they focus primarily on environmental events.

In psychology, aversives are unpleasant stimuli that induce changes in behavior via negative reinforcement or positive punishment. By applying an aversive immediately before or after a behavior the likelihood of the target behavior occurring in the future is reduced. Aversives can vary from being slightly unpleasant or irritating to physically, psychologically and/or emotionally damaging. It is not the level of unpleasantness or intention that matter, but rather the level of effectiveness the unpleasant event has on changing (decreasing) behavior that defines something as aversive.

Motivational salience is a cognitive process and a form of attention that motivates or propels an individual's behavior towards or away from a particular object, perceived event or outcome. Motivational salience regulates the intensity of behaviors that facilitate the attainment of a particular goal, the amount of time and energy that an individual is willing to expend to attain a particular goal, and the amount of risk that an individual is willing to accept while working to attain a particular goal.

Discrete trial training (DTT) is a technique used by practitioners of applied behavior analysis (ABA) that was developed by Ivar Lovaas at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). DTT uses direct instruction and reinforcers to create clear contingencies that shape new skills. Often employed as an early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI) for up to 6–7 hours per day for children with autism, the technique relies on the use of prompts, modeling, and positive reinforcement strategies to facilitate the child's learning. It previously used aversives to punish unwanted behaviors. DTT has also been referred to as the "Lovaas/UCLA model", "rapid motor imitation antecedent", "listener responding", errorless learning", and "mass trials".

Animal training

Animal training is the act of teaching animals specific responses to specific conditions or stimuli. Training may be for purposes such as companionship, detection, protection, and entertainment. The type of training an animal receives will vary depending on the training method used, and the purpose for training the animal. For example, a seeing eye dog will be trained to achieve a different goal than a wild animal in a circus.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA), also called behavioral engineering, is a scientific technique concerned with applying empirical approaches based upon the principles of respondent and operant conditioning to change behavior of social significance. It is the applied form of behavior analysis; the other two forms are radical behaviorism and the experimental analysis of behavior.

Behavior modification refers to behavior-change procedures that were employed during the 1970s and early 1980s. Based on methodological behaviorism, overt behavior was modified with presumed consequences, including artificial positive and negative reinforcement contingencies to increase desirable behavior, or administering positive and negative punishment and/or extinction to reduce problematic behavior. For the treatment of phobias, habituation and punishment were the basic principles used in flooding, a subcategory of desensitization.

In classical conditioning, the delay reduction hypothesis states that certain discriminative stimuli (DS) are more effective signals for conditioned reinforcers (CR) if they signal a decrease in time to a positive reinforcer or an increase in time to an aversive stimulus or punishment. This is often applied in chain link schedules, with the final link being the aversive stimulus or positive (unconditioned) reinforcer.

Avoidance response response that prevents an aversive stimulus from occurring

An avoidance response is a response that prevents an aversive stimulus from occurring. It is a kind of negative reinforcement. An avoidance response is a behavior based on the concept that animals will avoid performing behaviors that result in an aversive outcome. This can involve learning through operant conditioning when it is used as a training technique. It is a reaction to undesirable sensations or feedback that leads to avoiding the behavior that is followed by this unpleasant or fear-inducing stimulus.

Behavior management is similar to behavior modification. It is a less intensive version of behavior therapy. In behavior modification, the focus is on changing behavior, while in behavior management the focus is on maintaining order. Behavior management skills are of particular importance to teachers in the educational system. Behavior management includes all of the actions and conscious inactions to enhance the probability people, individually and in groups, choose behaviors which are personally fulfilling, productive, and socially acceptable. Behavior management can be accomplished through modeling, rewards or punishment.

Parrot training training of birds

Parrot training, also called parrot teaching, is the application of training techniques to modify the behavior of household companion parrots. Training is used to deal with behavior problems such as biting and screaming, to train husbandry behaviors such as allowing claw trimming without restraint or accepting a parrot harness, and to teach various tricks.

Emotional responsivity is the ability to acknowledge an affective stimuli by exhibiting emotion. Increased emotional responsivity refers to demonstrating more response to a stimulus. Reduced emotional responsivity refers to demonstrating less response to a stimulus. Any response exhibited after exposure to the stimulus, whether it is appropriate or not, would be considered as an emotional response. Although emotional responsivity applies to nonclinical populations, it is more typically associated with individuals with schizophrenia and autism.

Motivating operation (MO) is a behavioristic concept introduced by Jack Michael in 1982. It is used to explain variations in the effects in the consequences of behavior. Most importantly, a MO affects how strongly the person is reinforced or punished by the consequences of their behavior. For example, food deprivation is a motivating operation; if a person is hungry, food is strongly reinforcing, but if a person is satiated, food is less reinforcing. In 2003 Laraway suggested subdividing MOs into those that increase the reinforcing or punishing effects of a stimulus, which are termed establishing operations, and MOs that decrease the reinforcing or punishing effects of a stimulus, which are termed abolishing operations.

Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) is an ongoing process of collecting information with a goal of identifying the environmental variables that control a problem or target behavior. The purpose of the assessment is to prove and aid the effectiveness of the interventions or treatments used to help eliminate the problem behavior. Through functional behavior assessments, we have learned that there are complex patterns to people's seemingly unproductive behaviors. It is important to not only pay attention to consequences that follow the behavior but also the antecedent that evokes the behavior. More work needs to be done in the future with functional assessment including balancing precision and efficiency, being more specific with variables involved and a more smooth transition from assessment to intervention.

The three-term contingency in operant conditioning—or contingency management—describes the relationship between a behavior, its consequence, and the environmental context. The three-term contingency was first defined by B. F. Skinner in the early 1950s. It is often used within ABA to alter the frequency of socially significant human behavior.

Association in psychology refers to a mental connection between concepts, events, or mental states that usually stems from specific experiences. Associations are seen throughout several schools of thought in psychology including behaviorism, associationism, psychoanalysis, social psychology, and structuralism. The idea stems from Plato and Aristotle, especially with regard to the succession of memories, and it was carried on by philosophers such as John Locke, David Hume, David Hartley, and James Mill. It finds its place in modern psychology in such areas as memory, learning, and the study of neural pathways.


  1. D'Amato, M. R. (1969). Melvin H. Marx (ed.). Learning Processes: Instrumental Conditioning. Toronto: The Macmillan Company.
  2. Solnick, J. V., Rincover, A. and Peterson, C. R. (1977), Some Determinants Of the Reinforcing and Punishing Effects of Timeout. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 10: 415-424. doi:10.1901/jaba.1977.10-415
  3. Skinner, B. F. "Science and Human Behavior" (1953)McMIllan, New York
  4. Solomon, R. L. (1964). "Punishment." American Psychologist, 19(4), 239-253.
  5. Lerman, D. C. and Vorndran, C. M. (2002), ON THE STATUS OF KNOWLEDGE FOR USING PUNISHMENT: IMPLICATIONS FOR TREATING BEHAVIOR DISORDERS. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 35: 431-464. doi:10.1901/jaba.2002.35-431
  6. Azrin, N. H. (1960). Effects of punishment intensity during variable-interval reinforcement. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 3(2), 123–142.
  7. Schwartz, B, Wasserman, E. A., & Robbins, S. J. "Psychology of Learning and Behavior" (5th Ed) (2002) Norton, New York
  8. Meindl, J. N., & Casey, L. B. (2012). Increasing the suppressive effect of delayed punishers: A review of basic and applied literature. Behavioral Interventions, 27(3), 129–150. https://doi.org/10.1002/bin.1341
  9. Henny Kupferstein. Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autism exposed to applied behavior analysis . "Advances in Autism". 4 (1), pp. 19–29, 2018.
  10. Justin Barrett Leaf. Evaluating Kupferstein’s claims of the relationship of behavioral intervention to PTSS for individuals with autism . "Advances in autism". 4 (3), pp. 122–129, 2018.
  11. Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). Who's Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation. ISBN   0-07-144672-9.
  12. Dutton; Painter (1981). "Traumatic Bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abuse". Victimology: An International Journal (7).
  13. Chrissie Sanderson. Counselling Survivors of Domestic Abuse . Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 15 June 2008. ISBN   978-1-84642-811-1. p. 84.