Learning through Reinforcement or Punishment – Positive Punishment

Dr. Donna L. Roberts

The consequences of an act affect the probability of its occurring again. – B. F. Skinner

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Punishment refers to “a consequence that decreases the frequency or likelihood that a behavior will occur” (Santrok, 2003, p. 284). Like its counterpart, punishment can be further broken down by type. Punishment I, also referred to as Positive Punishment by some behaviorists, exists if a behavior decreases when it is followed by an aversive stimulus (Carlson, Miller, Heth, Donahoe & Martin, 2009; Santrock, 2003). Thus, with punishment, the behavior tendency is weakened, while with reinforcement it is strengthened.

Adapted from Figure 4-3 (Ormrod, 2004, p. 61)

Example of Positive Punishment

Scenario: Lisa and Fran are giggling together in the back of the classroom. Their teacher scowls at them. They areembarrassed and become quiet.

This scenario represents an example of Positive Punishment (Punishment I) whereby the introduction of an aversivestimulus resulted in a reduction in the occurrence of an undesirable behavior. Specifically, in this example, the giggling in the classroom corresponds to the behavior that the teacher desires to eliminate. Toward that end, thescowl directed to the giggling girls (and all that it denotes – i.e., displeasure, threat of punishment, etc.) and the embarrassment this action caused, represent the aversive stimuli. The introduction of these aversive stimuli (positive punishment) led directly to the cessation of the undesirable behavior.

This type of punishment represents one of the most common and frequently used strategies for behavior modification, despite the fact that a variety of circumstances may interplay to reduce its effectiveness. Researchers and practitioners have developed general guidelines for implementing punishment effectively, including:

  • The punishment must be punishing. True punishment decreases the response it follows.Sometimes adults make assumptions about what consequences will be punishment, butsometimes a common punishment might be reinforcing (e.g., the child for whom time-out is a pleasure; the kid who hates school suspended for nonattendance).
  • The punishment must be strong enough to be effective, but not overly severe.Punishment that is too short or mild is not effective (e.g., fines are not sufficient deterrents for many drunk drivers; threat of getting a bad grade is not sufficient to keep many students from not studying). Punishment that is overly severe may have undesirable side effects, such as resentment, hostility, or escape behavior, and mayreappear at its original level once the punisher has left the scene.
  • Punishment should be threatened once before it is administered. People should be warned ahead of time, since punishment is most likely to deter behavior when an individual knows that the behavior will lead to punishment, what that punishment will be, and that the punishment is, in fact, likely to occur as promised.
  • The behavior to be punished should be described in clear, concrete terms. Students should understand exactly which responses are unacceptable. (e.g., students told "disruption of the class is unacceptable" might not actually know what "disruption" means, exactly, and if "getting out of your seat without permission" is included, the student needs to know that).
  • Punishment should be consistent. Punishment is much more effective when it is a consistent consequence of a particular response. When a responseis punished only occasionally, the response disappears slowly, if at all.
  • Whenever possible, the environment should be modified so that the misbehavior is less likely to occur. The temptation to engage in misbehavior should be reduced or, if possible,eliminated. (e.g., people on diets should not stock their kitchens with junk food; cheating on exams can be reduced by having students sit apart from one another or by administering two different forms of the exam).
  • Desirable alternative behaviors should be taught and reinforced. Punishment is more effective combined with reinforcement of appropriate behavior. A misbehavior is morelikely to be permanently suppressed when alternative behaviors are reinforced, especially when those behaviors are incompatible with the punished behavior. (e.g., if punishingplayground aggression, reinforce appropriate social behavior).
  • Whenever possible, punishment should immediately follow the inappropriate behavior.Effectiveness of punishment decreases dramatically when delayed, although if punishment cannot follow the misbehavior, the punished behavior must be clearly described.
  • An explanation of why the behavior is unacceptable should be given. Punishment is more effective when reasons why certain behaviors cannot be tolerated are given. (e.g., "When you talk without permission and when you get out of your seat during quiet reading time, you keep other children from getting their work done.") The advantages of this are that providing the reasoning for the punishment lessens the critical factor ofimmediacy in the punishment, increases the likelihood that similar misbehaviors are also suppressed (the effect of the punishment generalizes to other behaviors), increaseslikelihood that the misbehavior will be suppressed even when the punisher is absent, and helps with older children's expectation that they be told why they cannot engage in certainbehaviors and are less likely to be defiant when reasons are provided.
  • Some punishments that are particularly ineffective and should be avoided. Not generally effective and not recommended are physical punishment (especially with olderchildren), psychological punishment, extra classwork, and suspension from school.Alternate to suspension is in-house suspension (in-house time-out), which does not reward misbehaving students by removing them from the school environment but prevents interacting with peers that most students find rewarding.
  • Punishment should be used sparingly. An effective punishment is one that does not need to be administered very often to be effective. When punishment is a frequentoccurrence, the numerous disadvantages of punishment are likely to appear (i.e., anger, resentment, avoidance, etc.). (Abbott, 2003).

Humans are adaptable creatures that continually modify their behavior to suit the conditions in which they findthemselves. In our civilized society we repeatedly find circumstances in which we desire to influence and alter thebehavior of others. Behaviorist and social learning principles provide methods and strategies to achieve this end. The challenge is not so much whether these methods work, but in the accurate interpretation of the subjective aspects of the human beingsupon which we desire them to operate. It is in deciphering the missing link in the circular reasoning that definesreinforcement and punishment by their results – the human element that makes one man’s reward another man’spenalty.

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Abbott, L. (2003). Behavioral theory: Part 2 - operant conditioning. The University of Texas web site:http://teachnet.edb.utexas.edu/~lynda_abbott/Behavioral2.html

Carlson, N. R., Miller, H. L., Heth, D. S., Donahoe, J. W., & Martin, G. N. (2009). Psychology: The science of behavior, 7e.New York, NY: Pearson Ed.

Ormrod, J. E. (2004). Human learning, 4e. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill Prentice Hall.

Santrock, J. W. (2003). Psychology, 7e Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.

Canandaigua, NY

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