Punishment (psychology)

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Operant conditioningExtinction
Increase behavior
Decrease behavior
Positive reinforcement
Add appetitive stimulus
following correct behavior
Negative reinforcementPositive punishment
Add noxious stimulus
following behavior
Negative punishment
Remove appetitive stimulus
following behavior
Remove noxious stimulus
following correct behavior
Active avoidance
Behavior 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. This is called motivating operations (MO)[1], because they alter the effectiveness of a stimulus. MO can be categorized in abolishing operations, decrease the effectiveness of the stimuli and establishing, increase the effectiveness of the stimuli. 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, positive and negative. Positive punishment involves the introduction of a stimulus to decrease behavior while negative punishment involves the removal of a stimulus to decrease behavior. While similar to reinforcement, punishment's goal is to decrease behaviors while reinforcement's goal is to increase behaviors. Different kinds of stimuli exist as well. There are rewarding stimuli which are considered pleasant and aversive stimuli, which are considered unpleasant. There are also two types of punishers. There are primary punishers which directly affect the individual such as pain and are a natural response and then there are secondary punishers which are things that are learned to be negative like a buzzing sound when getting an answer wrong on a game show.

Conflicting findings have been found on the effectiveness of the use of punishment.[2][3][4] Some have found that punishment can be a useful tool in suppressing behavior while some have found it to have a weak effect on suppressing behavior. Punishment can also lead to lasting negative unintended side effects as well.[5]

Punishment has been used in a lot of different applications. Punishment has been used in applied behavioral analysis, specifically in situations to try and punish dangerous behaviors like head banging. Punishment has also been used to psychologically manipulate individuals to gain control over victims. It has also been used in scenarios where an abuser may try punishment in order to traumatically bond their victim with them. Stuttering therapy has also seen the use of punishment with effective results


There are two basic types of punishment in operant conditioning:

  • positive punishment, punishment by application, or type I punishment, an experimenter punishes a response by presenting an aversive stimulus into the animal's surroundings (a brief electric shock, for example).
  • negative punishment, punishment by removal, or type II punishment, a valued, appetitive stimulus is removed (as in the removal of a feeding dish). As with reinforcement, it is not usually necessary to speak of positive and negative in regard to punishment.

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.

  • Example: A mother yells at a child when he or she runs into the street. If the child stops running into the street, the yelling ceases. The yelling acts as positive punishment because the mother presents (adds) an unpleasant stimulus in the form of yelling.
  • Example: A barefoot person walks onto a hot asphalt surface, creating pain, a positive punishment. When the person leaves the asphalt, the pain subsides. The pain acts as positive punishment because it is the addition of an unpleasant stimulus that reduces the future likelihood of the person walking barefoot on a hot surface.


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

  • Example: A teenager comes home after curfew and the parents take away a privilege, such as cell phone usage. If the frequency of the child coming home late decreases, the privilege is gradually restored. The removal of the phone is negative punishment because the parents are taking away a pleasant stimulus (the phone) and motivating the child to return home earlier.
  • Example: A child throws a temper tantrum because they want ice cream. His/her mother subsequently ignores him/her, making it less likely the child will throw a temper tantrum in the future when they want something. The removal of attention from his mother is a negative punishment because a pleasant stimulus (attention) is taken away.

Versus reinforcement[edit]

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.[6] 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/Presenting Positive Reinforcement Positive Punishment
Removing/Taking Away Negative Punishment Negative Reinforcement

Types of stimuli and punishers[edit]

Rewarding stimuli (pleasant)[edit]

A rewarding stimuli is a stimulus that is considered pleasant. For example, a child may be allowed TV time everyday. Punishment often involves the removal of a rewarding stimuli if an undesired action is done. If the child were to misbehave, this rewarding stimulus of TV time would be removed which would result in negative punishment.

Aversive stimuli (unpleasant)[edit]

Aversive Stimuli, 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. 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 punishers[edit]

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.

Secondary punishers[edit]

The sound of someone booing, the wrong-answer buzzer on a game show, and a ticket on your car windshield are all things society has 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,[2] a large body of research has shown that it can have a powerful and lasting effect in suppressing the punished behavior.[3][4] Furthermore, more severe punishments are more effective, and very severe ones may even produce complete suppression.[7] 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.[5] Such side effects suggest caution and restraint in the use of punishment to modify behavior. Spanking in particular has been found to have lasting side effects. Parents often use spanking to try make their child act better but there is no evidence that spanking is effective in doing so. Some lasting side effects of spanking include lower cognitive ability, lower self-esteem, and more mental health problems for the child. Some side effects can reach into adulthood as well such as antisocial behavior and support for punishment that involves physical force such as spanking.[8]

Importance of contingency and contiguity[edit]

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.[9]


Applied behavior analysis[edit]

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.[10] However, the quality of this study has been disputed by other researchers.[11]

Psychological manipulation[edit]

Braiker identified the following ways that manipulators control their victims:[12]

Traumatic bonding[edit]

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.[13][14]

Punishment used in stuttering therapy[edit]

Early studies in the late 60's to early 70's have shown that punishment via time-out (a form of negative punishment) can reduce the severity of stuttering in patients. Since the punishment in these studies was time-out which resulted in the removal of the permission to speak, speaking itself was seen as reinforcing which thus made the time-out an effective form of punishment.[15][16][17] Some research has also shown that it is not the time-out that is considered punishing but rather the fact that the removal of the permission to speak was seen as punishing because it interrupted the individual's speech.[17][18]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Motivating Operations". ABA: Applied Behavior Analysis. Retrieved 2022-07-21.
  2. ^ a b Skinner BF (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: McMIllan.
  3. ^ a b Solomon RL (1964). "Punishment". American Psychologist. 19 (4): 239–253. doi:10.1037/h0042493.
  4. ^ a b Lerman DC, Vorndran CM (2002). "On the status of knowledge for using punishment implications for treating behavior disorders". Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 35 (4): 431–64. doi:10.1901/jaba.2002.35-431. PMC 1284409. PMID 12555918.
  5. ^ a b Schwartz B, Wasserman EA, Robbins SJ (2002). Psychology of Learning and Behavior (5th ed.). New York: Norton.
  6. ^ D'Amato MR (1969). Melvin H. Marx (ed.). Learning Processes: Instrumental Conditioning. Toronto: The Macmillan Company.
  7. ^ Azrin NH (April 1960). "Effects of punishment intensity during variable-interval reinforcement". Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 3 (2): 123–142. doi:10.1901/jeab.1960.3-123. PMC 1403961. PMID 13795412.
  8. ^ Gershoff ET, Grogan-Kaylor A (June 2016). "Spanking and child outcomes: Old controversies and new meta-analyses". Journal of Family Psychology. 30 (4): 453–469. doi:10.1037/fam0000191. PMC 7992110. PMID 27055181.
  9. ^ Meindl JN, Casey LB (July 2012). "Increasing the suppressive effect of delayed punishers: a review of basic and applied literature". Behavioral Interventions. 27 (3): 129–150. doi:10.1002/bin.1341.
  10. ^ Kupferstein H (2018). "Evidence of increased PTSD symptoms in autism exposed to applied behavior analysis". Advances in Autism. 4 (1): 19–29. doi:10.1108/AIA-08-2017-0016.
  11. ^ Leaf JB, Ross RK, Cihon JH, Weiss MJ (October 2018). "Evaluating Kupferstein's claims of the relationship of behavioral intervention to PTSS for individuals with autism". Advances in Autism. 4 (3): 122–129. doi:10.1108/AIA-02-2018-0007. S2CID 150000349.
  12. ^ Braiker HB (2004). Who's Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation. ISBN 0-07-144672-9.
  13. ^ Dutton DG, Painter SL (1981). "Traumatic Bonding: The development of emotional attachments in battered women and other relationships of intermittent abus". Victimology: An International Journal. 6 (1–4): 139–155.
  14. ^ Sanderson C (2008). "Understanding survivors of domestic abuse". Counselling survivors of domestic abuse. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. p. 84. ISBN 978-1-84642-811-1.
  15. ^ Haroldson SK, Martin RR, Starr CD (September 1968). "Time-out as a punishment for stuttering". Journal of Speech and Hearing Research. 11 (3): 560–566. doi:10.1044/jshr.1103.560. PMID 5722480.
  16. ^ Martin R, Berndt LA (December 1970). "The effects of time-out on stuttering in a 12 year old boy". Exceptional Children. 37 (4): 303–304. doi:10.1177/001440297003700410. PMID 5479096. S2CID 43378134.
  17. ^ a b Nittrouer S, Cheney C (September 1984). "Operant techniques used in stuttering therapy: A review". Journal of Fluency Disorders. 9 (3): 169–190. doi:10.1016/0094-730X(84)90011-1. ISSN 0094-730X.
  18. ^ James JE, Ingham RJ (March 1974). "The influence of stutterer's expectancies of improvement upon response to time-out". Journal of Speech and Hearing Research. 17 (1): 86–93. doi:10.1044/jshr.1701.86. PMID 4828366.

Further reading[edit]

  • Chance P (2003). Learning and Behavior (5th ed.). Toronto: Thomson-Wadsworth.
  • Chance P (2009). Learning and Behavior: Active Learning Edition (6th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsorth/Cengage Learning.
  • Holth P (2005). "Two Definitions of Punishment". The Behavior Analyst Today. 6 (1): 43–55. doi:10.1037/h0100049.
  • Meier SE. "Side Effects and Problems with Punishment" (PDF). Psychology 390: Psychology of Learning. University of Idaho. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 April 2012.
  • Skinner BF (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.