Positive Punishment and Operant Conditioning

Positive punishment is a concept used in B.F. Skinner's theory of operant conditioning. How exactly does the positive punishment process work? The goal of any type of punishment is to decrease the behavior that it follows. In the case of positive punishment, it involves presenting an unfavorable outcome or event following an undesirable behavior.

In other words, when the subject performs an unwanted action, some type of negative outcome is purposefully applied. So if you are training your dog to stop chewing on your favorite slippers, you might scold the animal every time you catch him gnawing on your footwear. Because the dog exhibited an unwanted behavior (chewing on your shoes), you applied an aversive outcome (giving the dog a verbal scolding).

positive punishment
Verywell / Cindy Chung

The concept of positive punishment can be difficult to remember, especially because it seems like a contradiction. How can punishment be positive? The easiest way to remember this concept is to note that it involves an aversive stimulus that is added to the situation. For this reason, positive punishment is sometimes referred to as punishment by application.


You may be surprised to notice examples of positive punishment in your day-to-day life. For example:

  • You wear your favorite baseball cap to class but are reprimanded by your instructor for violating your school's dress code.
  • Because you're late to work one morning, you drive over the speed limit through a school zone. As a result, you get pulled over by a police officer and receive a ticket.
  • Your cell phone rings in the middle of a class lecture, and you are scolded by your teacher for not turning your phone off before class.

Can you identify examples of positive punishment? The teacher reprimanding you for breaking the dress code, the officer issuing the speeding ticket, and the teacher scolding you for not turning off your cell phone are all right. They represent aversive stimuli that are meant to decrease the behavior that they follow.

In all of the examples above, the positive punishment is purposely administered by another person. However, positive punishment can also occur as a natural consequence of a behavior. Touching a hot stove or a sharp object can cause painful injuries that serve as natural positive punishers for the behaviors. Because you experienced a negative outcome as a result of your behavior, you become less likely to engage in those actions again in the future.

Spanking as Positive Punishment

While positive punishment can be effective in some situations, B.F. Skinner noted that its use must be weighed against any potential negative effects. One of the best-known examples of positive punishment is spanking. Defined as striking a child across the buttocks with an open hand, this form of discipline is reportedly used by approximately 75 percent of parents in the United States.

Some researchers have suggested that mild, occasional spanking is not harmful, especially when used along with other forms of discipline. However, in one large meta-analysis of previous research, psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff found that spanking was associated with poor parent-child relationships as well as with increases in antisocial behavior, delinquency, and aggressiveness. More recent studies that controlled for a variety of confounding variables also found similar results.

While positive punishment has its uses, many experts suggested that other methods of operant conditioning are often more effective for changing behaviors in the short-term and long-term. Perhaps most importantly, many of these other methods come without the potentially negative consequences of positive punishment.

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Article Sources

  • Gershoff, E. T. Corporal Punishment by Hand Associated Child Behavior and Experiences: A Meta-Analysis and Theoretical Review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-579. 2002.​
  • Hockenbury, D., & Hockenbury, S. E. Discovering Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers. 2007.
  • Skinner, B. F. About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf. 1974.
  • Taylor, C. A., Manganello, J. A., Lee, S. J., & Rice, J. C. Mothers' Spanking of 3-Year-Old Children and Subsequent Risk of Children's Aggressive Behavior. Pediatrics 125 (5): e1057–65. 2010.