The Study of Punishment in Psychology

A mother talking to and pointing a finger at her young daughter

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Punishment is a term used in operant conditioning to refer to any change that occurs after a behavior that reduces the likelihood that that behavior will occur again in the future. While positive and negative reinforcements are used to increase behaviors, punishment is focused on reducing or eliminating unwanted behaviors.

Punishment is often mistakenly confused with negative reinforcement. The difference: Reinforcement increases the chances that a behavior will occur and punishment decreases the chances that a behavior will occur.

Types of Punishment

Behaviorist B. F. Skinner, the psychologist who first described operant conditioning, identified two different kinds of aversive stimuli that can be used as punishment:

  • Positive punishment: This type of punishment is also known as "punishment by application." Positive punishment involves presenting an aversive stimulus after a behavior has occurred. For example, when a student talks out of turn in the middle of class, the teacher might scold the child for interrupting.​​
  • Negative punishment: This type of punishment is also known as "punishment by removal." Negative punishment involves taking away a desirable stimulus after a behavior has occurred. For example, when the student from the previous example talks out of turn again, the teacher promptly tells the child that they will have to miss recess because of their behavior.

Effectiveness

While punishment can be effective in some cases, you can probably think of a few examples of when a punishment does not consistently reduce unwanted behavior. Prison is one example. After being sent to jail for a crime, people often continue committing crimes once they are released from prison.

Why is it that punishment seems to work in some instances but not in others? Researchers have found two factors that contribute to how effective punishment is in different situations.

First, punishment is more effective if is applied quickly. Prison sentences often occur long after the crime has been committed, which may help explain one reason why sending people to jail does not always lead to a reduction in criminal behavior.

Second, punishment achieves greater results when it is consistently applied. It can be difficult to administer a punishment every single time a behavior occurs. For example, people often continue to drive over the speed limit even after receiving a speeding ticket. Why? Because the behavior is inconsistently punished.

Punishment is more likely to lead to a reduction in behavior if it immediately follows the behavior and is consistently applied.

Drawbacks and Consequences

Punishment also has some notable drawbacks. First, any behavior changes that result from punishment are often temporary. "Punished behavior is likely to reappear after the punitive consequences are withdrawn," Skinner explained in his book "Beyond Freedom and Dignity."

Perhaps the greatest drawback is the fact that punishment does not actually offer any information about more appropriate or desired behaviors. While subjects might be learning to not perform certain actions, they are not really learning anything about what they should be doing.

Another thing to consider about punishment is that it can have unintended and undesirable consequences. For example, a 2014 survey in America found nearly half of parents admitted to spanking their younger children (age 9 and under) in the past year. Researchers have found that this type of physical punishment may lead to antisocial behavior, aggression, and delinquency among children.

For this reason, Skinner and other psychologists suggest that any potential short-term gains from using punishment as a behavior modification tool need to be weighed against the potential long-term consequences.

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Article Sources
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Additional Reading
  • Skinner BF. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company; 1971.