Negative punishment refers to removing a pleasant stimulus following an unwanted target behavior. The purpose of applying negative punishment is to decrease the chances of that target behavior occurring again.
The term negative is used because it refers to the removal of a stimulus, in this context the stimulus is something the individual finds pleasurable.
Negative punishment is sometimes used as part of behavior modification, which is a strategy to shape a person’s behavior through a systematic plan of rewards and punishments.
By applying negative punishment to unwanted behavior and delivering rewards to wanted behavior, the individual’s behavioral patterns will change over time.
Because the stimulus being removed is a pleasant one, it may have previously been used as a reward. The stimulus itself must have a positive hedonic value in order for it to be utilized as a negative punisher (Poling et al., 2002)
Negative punishment is sometimes incorporated in applied behavior analysis (ABA) which is often implemented in school settings, psychiatric hospitals, or correctional facilities (Madden, 2012).
Negative vs. Positive Punishment
There is one primary difference and one primary similarity between negative and positive punishment.
First, negative punishment refers to removing a pleasant stimulus. However, positive punishment refers to applying or delivering an aversive stimulus. For example, when a teacher takes a privilege away from a student, they are using negative punishment. The term negative is used because it involves the removal of something.
Secondly, both negative and positive punishment are intended to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. One does so by taking away a pleasant stimulus and other by adding an aversive stimulus.
Negative Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement
There are two key differences between negative punishment and negative reinforcement.
- First, negative punishment involves removing a pleasant stimulus and negative reinforcement involves removing an aversive stimulus.
- Second, negative punishment is intended to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again, while negative reinforcement is intended to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.
An example of negative punishment is taking away a toy that a child enjoys playing with because they are using it to smash other toys. The goal is to decrease smashing behavior by removing a pleasant stimulus.
An example of negative reinforcement would be allowing a student to leave time-out if they apologize for misbehaving. The student does not like having to sit quietly while their classmates are doing other activities, so, the teacher explains that this aversive situation will be removed if the student apologizes.
Origins of Negative Punishment
Negative punishment is one of several elements in Skinner’s theory of learning called operant conditioning (Skinner, 1965).
Operant conditioning is a theoretical framework that identifies how the consequences of an action determine the likelihood of it occurring again.
Actions followed by pleasant consequences are more likely to occur again, while actions followed by negative consequences are less likely to occur again.
These basic principles of behavior and consequences originate from Edward Thorndike and his proposed Law of Effect (1898; 1905).
The Law of Effect states that, “Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation” (Gray, 2007, p. 106).
Negative Punishment Examples
- Time-Out: Although controversial, it is still often used to discipline young children. For instance, when the child engages in unwanted behavior, such as playing roughly with a friend, they are removed from the situation. Because they were enjoying playing, albeit aggressively, being removed from the situation makes it an example of negative punishment from their perspective.
- The Time-Out Ribbon: Sometimes used in adult group therapy, each member of the group is given a ribbon at the beginning of the therapy session. The ribbon represents the right to receive rewards in a token economy. If a member of the group exhibits an unwanted behavior, such as making a rude comment, the ribbon is taken away. This means the opportunity to participate in the token economy has been removed.
- Ignoring Disruptive Behavior: Sometimes a child is disruptive to gain attention. It is socially rewarding. So, if the teacher scolds a child, even though scolding is supposed to be aversive, it is actually rewarding to the child. Therefore, teachers are sometimes advised to ignore disruptive behavior. Removing the rewarding qualities of attention is therefore a form of negative punishment.
- No More Phone for You: Taking away a teenager’s phone may seem extreme, but it can be an effective way to reduce the unwanted target behavior. Because the phone is a positive and rewarding stimulus to the teenager, taking it away makes it an example of negative punishment.
- Turning Off the TV: Whenever two siblings start to fight over which programs to watch, the parent simply takes the remote control and turns the TV off. The siblings’ unwanted behavior results in the removal of a pleasant stimulus.
- Removing Gold Stars: A teacher gives a gold star when students raise their hand or clean-up after themselves. The stars are displayed on a behavior chart on the wall. However, if a student engages in disruptive behavior, the teacher can remove a star.
- Loss of Recess Time: A teacher has warned students that if they misbehave a total of three times during circle time, then they will not be allowed to play outside during recess. The teacher then keeps track of each child’s behavior and then removes the positive experience of recess if necessary.
- Not Getting Ice-Cream: Every weekend, parents take their child to their favorite ice-cream parlor. However, if the child refuses to clean-up their room or do other small chores around the house, the parents go by themselves and leave the child at home with the nanny.
- Withholding Driving Privileges: Although a teenager doesn’t own their own car, they usually have unlimited use of the family’s extra vehicle. Until that is, they do something wrong. Then the parents take those privileges away.
- Removal from Arts and Crafts Time: Because one student started to throw clay balls at their classmates, they are removed from the arts and crafts activity, which they really enjoy. By taking them out of the activity, the teacher is applying negative punishment.
Ethical Criticisms of Negative Punishment
Many believe that punishment in any form should not be a therapeutic technique. Although this discussion is often focused on the use of positive punishment, the delivery of an aversive stimulus, it extends to the application of any means that creates negative sentiment in the individual.
As Poling et al. (2002) elaborated,
“Skinner did not argue that behavior could not be reduced by negative punishment. Rather, he argued on practical and ethical grounds that behavior should not be reduced in this way because there are better alternatives (e.g., positive reinforcement)” (p. 194).
Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of negative and positive punishment on clinical populations (Lerman & Vorndran, 2002). In as much as practice should be based on research, there is substantial support for the application of aversive techniques (Poling et al., 2002). It should be noted however, that aversive techniques are quite varied and do not by definition include spanking (see Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2016 for a review of research on spanking).
With that said, as is the case with all aversive interventions, negative punishment may result in negative emotional reactions such as crying, resentment, or aggressive behavior (Readdick & Chapman, 2000).
Applications of Negative Punishment
1. Time Out
Developed by Arthur Staats in the 1950’s, time out may be one of the most misunderstood and controversial disciplinary techniques of the last 50 years (Harris, 1984; Wolf et al., 2006).
It is often defined as placing a child in a corner as punishment for their misbehavior. However, it has evolved to be much more than that.
There are several versions of time-out. Each one is a form of negative punishment because it involves removing the child from a situation they find rewarding.
2. Planned ignoring
This involves removing social attention from the student (or adult psychiatric patient). The unwanted target behavior is therefore not reinforced socially.
3. Contingent observation
The disruptive student must watch a group activity, which they want to participate in, from the periphery.
4. Exclusion timeout
The student is required to sit facing a corner of a room and thus not allowed to participate in the activity they prefer.
5. Isolation or seclusion timeout
This version is the most restrictive. The student is removed from the classroom entirely and stays alone in a separate location for a specified period of time.
Larzelere et al. (2020) conducted a meta-analysis of 24 studies published from 1979 to 2018 which evaluated the effectiveness of time-out when conducted by a parent on children under the age of 13 and not suffering from a several developmental disability. The authors concluded that “our results strongly confirmed timeout’s effectiveness” (p. 19).
There are numerous criticisms of time-out however. Bezt (1994) suggests that time-out fails to teach desirable behavior. Readdick and Chapman (2000) point out that it can have the same negative side effects as other forms of aversion-based strategies that activate negative emotions, and may also lead to the child internalizing a negative label of themselves.
Gartrell (2001) is against the procedure due to its “blame and shame” nature, also point out that it prevents the child from developing internal self-regulation, can damage their self-esteem and confidence, and may cause other children to view the child as a kind of “trouble-maker.”
Negative punishment is when a pleasant stimulus is removed as a consequence of unwanted behavior. So, when a student in a classroom begins to act-out and be disruptive, even though they may be enjoying the class activity, they are taken out of the situation.
The goal is to reduce the likelihood of the disruptive behavior occurring again by applying a negative punishment.
Perhaps the most famous, and controversial form of negative punishment is the time-out procedure. There are several versions of the technique, and, there are several criticisms.
As is the case with all disciplinary strategies that utilize aversion, there can be negative side effects.
In addition to crying and feeling resentment, children may also begin to ascribe and internalize a negative label to their self-identity. This is one of among several reasons that many educators and parents may prefer positive disciplinary approaches which are more focused on helping children learn constructive ways to act.
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