How Negative Punishment Works

Toddler having a temper tantrum
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Negative punishment is an important concept in B. F. Skinner's theory of operant conditioning. In behavioral psychology, the goal of punishment is to decrease unwanted behavior. In the case of negative punishment, it involves taking something good or desirable away to reduce the occurrence of a particular behavior.

One of the easiest ways to remember this concept is to note that in behavioral terms, positive means adding something while negative means taking something away. For this reason, negative punishment is often referred to as "punishment by removal."

Examples of Negative Punishment

Can you identify examples of negative punishment? Losing access to a toy, being grounded, and losing reward tokens are all examples of negative punishment. In each case, something good is being taken away as a result of the individual's undesirable behavior. For example:

  • After two children get into a fight over who gets to play with a new toy, the mother simply takes the toy away from both children.
  • A teenage girl stays out for an hour past her curfew, so her parents ground her for a week.
  • A third-grade boy yells at another student during class, so his teacher takes away his "good behavior" tokens that can be redeemed for prizes.

Conversely, with positive punishment, something undesirable is added when an unwanted behavior has occurred. For instance, when a child throws a temper tantrum, she is sent to her room for a timeout. Both types of punishment have the same end goal: to change behavior.

The Effects of Negative Punishment

While negative punishment can be highly effective, Skinner and other researchers have suggested that a number of different factors can influence its success.

Negative punishment is most effective when:

  • It immediately follows a response.
  • It is applied consistently.

Consider this example: a teenage girl has a driver's license, but it does not allow her to drive at night. However, she drives at night several times a week without facing any consequences. One evening while she is driving to the mall with a friend, she is pulled over and issued a ticket.

As a result, she receives a notice in the mail a week later informing her that her driving privileges have been revoked for 30 days. Once she regains her license, she goes back to driving at night even though she has six more months before she is legally allowed to drive during the evening and nighttime hours.

As you might have guessed, losing her license is the negative punishment in this example. So why would she continue to engage in the behavior even though it led to punishment?

Because the punishment was inconsistently applied (she drove at night many times without facing punishment) and because the punishment was not applied immediately (her driving privileges were not revoked until a week after she was caught), the negative punishment was not effective at curtailing her behavior.

Another major problem with negative punishment is that while it might reduce the unwanted behavior, it does not provide any information or instruction on more appropriate reactions. B.F. Skinner also noted that once the punishment is withdrawn, the behavior is very likely to return.

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Rea C, Hockenbury DH. Study Guide to Accompany Discovering Psychology, Sixth Edition. New York, NY: Worth Publishers; 2013.

  2. Slocum SK, Vollmer TR, Donaldson JM. Effects of delayed time-out on problem behavior of preschool children. J Appl Behav Anal. 2019;52(4):994-1004. doi:10.1002/jaba.640

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."