Punishment (psychology)

In operant conditioning, punishment is any change in a human or animal's surroundings that occurs after a given behavior or response which reduces the likelihood of that behavior occurring again in the future. As with reinforcement, it is the behavior, not the 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.

Operant conditioningExtinction
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


There are two 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.

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 he wants ice cream. His mother subsequently ignores him, making it less likely the child will throw a temper tantrum in the future when he wants something. The removal of attention from his mother is a negative punishment because a pleasant stimulus (attention) is taken away.

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/Presenting Positive Reinforcement Positive Punishment
Removing/Taking Away Negative Punishment Negative 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


  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.
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