Positive punishment refers to delivering an aversive stimulus following an unwanted target behavior. The purpose of positive punishment is to decrease the chances of that target behavior occurring again.
The term positive is a bit misleading. Positive punishment is not a pleasant experience at all. The term positive is used because it refers to the fact that the aversive stimulus is added to the situation.
Positive punishment is part of behavior modification, which is a strategy to shape a person’s behavior through a systematic plan of rewards and punishments. By applying positive punishment to unwanted behavior and applying rewards to wanted behavior, the individual’s behavioral patterns will change over time.
Positive punishment is also sometimes utilized in applied behavior analysis (ABA) which is often implemented in school settings, psychiatric hospitals, or correctional facilities.
There are some professionals that prefer not to incorporate positive punishment for unwanted behavior. Instead, they ignore unwanted behavior and focus on helping the individual develop positive replacement behaviors.
Origins of Positive Punishment
Positive punishment is most often associated with B. F. Skinner and his theory of learning called operant conditioning (Skinner, 1965).
Operant conditioning provides a framework of how the consequences of an action determine the likelihood of that action happening again. Actions that are followed by pleasant consequences are more likely to occur again, and actions that are followed by aversive consequences are less likely to occur again.
We can trace the principles of operant conditioning to the work of Edward Thorndike and the 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).
Types of Positive Punishers
Almost always, positive punishment is discussed in the context of an authority figure such as a teacher or parent applying a positive punisher to another human being. For example, the parent scolding their child or imposing some kind of penalty.
However, this is a slightly incomplete portrayal of positive punishment.
According to Poling et al. (2003), there are two types of positive punishers:
- Unconditioned punishes: Unconditioned punishers are unlearned. This includes “events that provide extreme stimulation of any sensory system” (p. 360). Loud sounds, bright lights, electrical stimulation, extreme heat or cold, or strong pressure applied to the skin are all examples of unconditioned positive punishers. See also: unconditioned response.
- Conditioned punishers: Conditioned positive punishers are learned. They begin as neutral stimuli, but eventually acquire their capacity to reduce behavior through learning by association. This occurs through conditioning when an established punisher is reliably associated with an initially neutral stimulus. An example would be when a teacher places an X next to a student’s name on the board each time they misbehave. Accumulating five such marks results in being given extra classroom cleaning duties. The X in and of itself carries no inherent meaning, but because it is associated with an aversive experience, it acquires meaning and is therefore an example of a conditioned punisher. See also: conditioned response.
Positive vs. Negative Punishment
There is one key difference and one key similarity between positive and negative punishment.
First, the difference.
Whereas positive punishment refers to applying or delivering an aversive stimulus, the term negative punishment refers to removing a pleasant 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, the similarity.
Both positive and negative punishment are intended to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. One does so by adding an aversive stimulus and the other does so by taking away a pleasant stimulus.
Positive Punishment vs. Negative Reinforcement
There are two key differences between positive punishment and negative reinforcement.
Positive punishment involves applying an aversive stimulus to decrease the likelihood of a target behavior occurring again.
Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, involves removing an aversive stimulus to increase the likelihood of a target behavior occurring again.
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.
25 Positive Punishment Examples
- Being Scolded: After the class refuses to behave and listen, the teacher begins scolding the students for 10 minutes, using a stern tone of voice and unpleasant demeanor.
- Adding Chores: Some parents apply positive punishment when their child misbehaves in the form of adding to their child’s list of weekly chores, such as mowing the lawn, washing the windows, or taking out the trash.
- Touching a Hot Pot: Accidentally touching a scolding hot pot will produce an intensely aversive sensation. This kind of unconditioned punisher will decrease the chances of the behavior occurring again.
- Writing Sentences: Back in the olden days, one common form of punishment was assigning naughty students to write sentences. The student might be required to write the same sentence 50 or even 100 times. That sentence was usually about how the student will not engage in the unwanted behavior ever again because….
- Being Grounded: One of most parents’ favorite punishment is grounding a child from going out. It’s the kind of positive punishment that no child likes, so it has had universal application over generations of parenting.
- Speeding Tickets: The government also has its version of positive punishment. Getting a speeding ticket is very unpleasant and is supposed to reduce drivers’ tendencies to go over the speed limit.
- Corporate Fines: Even large corporations can be subject to government induced positive punishment. Breaking environmental laws or violating labor practices can result in severe fines.
- Community Service: Sometimes a court judge will impose community service requirements for individuals that break minor laws. The offender may have to complete a certain number of hours per week or per month as a form of punishment.
- Reciprocating Offense: Watching two siblings riding in the back seat of their mother’s car can be a continuous display of psychological principles in action. As the older sibling pokes and jabs at the younger, eventually a threshold of tolerance is breached. The younger sibling strikes back in a vengeant flurry of reciprocation. In that instance, the older sibling’s unwanted jabs are immediately ceased.
- Overcorrection: When a student runs down a school hallway even though they know they are supposed to walk, the teacher may require them to walk slowly down the hallway 10 times. This is a type of positive punishment called overcorrection.
- Extra Homework: If a student misbehaves in class, the teacher may assign them extra homework in addition to their regular assignments, in the hopes that this will discourage the disruptive behavior.
- Infringement Notice: When you fail to separate recyclables properly, the local council might issue you an infringement notice or fine, to discourage people from repeating the same mistake.
- Performance Improvement Plan: In the workplace, if an employee consistently underperforms or breaks company rules, they might be placed on a performance improvement plan which involves additional training, frequent self-performance reviews, and set goals to reach, to encourage better performance.
- Late Fees: If you’re late paying a bill, the company may impose a late fee. This added financial cost is meant to discourage late payments in the future.
- Suspension from School: If a student is consistently misbehaving, a school may implement suspension. The purpose is to discourage the student from continuing their disruptive behavior.
- Fitness Boot Camp: For someone who is frequently late to work or for other infractions, an employer might require attendance to a grueling early morning fitness boot camp as a form of punishment.
- Extra Drill Practice: In the military, a soldier who violates certain rules may be subjected to extra drill practice, as a way to reinforce discipline and correct behavior.
- Increased Insurance Premiums: Insurance companies may increase your premiums if you’re involved in several accidents or get multiple speeding tickets. This increased financial burden discourages unsafe driving behaviors.
- Time Out: In a preschool or daycare setting, a child who acts out might be put in a time-out, separate from the other children and activities, as a form of punishment.
- Negative Publicity: If a celebrity or public figure behaves inappropriately, they may receive negative publicity, damaging their reputation and acting as a punishment for their behavior.
- Detention: In a school setting, a student who violates the school rules may be given detention, where they have to stay in school after hours.
- Revoke Privileges: Parents may revoke a child’s privileges, such as playing video games or watching TV, if the child misbehaves or fails to complete their chores or homework.
- Additional Tax: Governments might impose an additional tax on unhealthy items such as tobacco or sugary drinks to discourage their consumption.
- Deduct Points: In a competitive setting, if a player or team breaks the rules, points may be deducted from their score as a punishment.
- Rehabilitation Programs: Courts may assign mandatory rehabilitation programs to individuals who are convicted of drug or alcohol-related offenses, aiming to discourage future use.
- Extra Training Sessions: In a sports team, a player who consistently performs poorly or violates team rules might be subjected to extra training sessions to improve their skills and behavior.
Effectiveness of Positive Punishment
To discuss the effectiveness of positive punishers first requires a clarification of its form. Positive punishers vary in intensity. At one end of the continuum are extreme examples such as mild electric shock, water mist sprayed in the face, and aromatic ammonia held close to the nose.
These forms of positive punishment are very aversive and controversial.
In fact, the American Association on Mental Retardation has condemned aversive procedures which cause physical pain or involve verbal abuse.
Less intensive forms of positive punishment involve requiring the individual to engage in nonpreferred activities such as extra chores or overcorrection.
There has been extensive research, over decades, examining the effectiveness of various forms of positive punishment. Generally speaking, the research shows that these methods, “used alone or in combination with other strategies, have been effective in reducing a substantial range of behaviors emitted by a wide variety of persons in diverse settings” (Poling et al., 2002, p. 364).
Criticisms of Positive Punishment
1. Ethical Considerations
Many believe that punishment should not be a therapeutic technique, in any form. This position is held by those who are especially concerned with protected populations such as individuals with mental retardation.
Most therapists and behavior analysts do not advocate the use of extreme versions of positive punishment, while others take an even stronger position and only support “non-aversive” interventions.
These arguments center more so on the use of unusual unconditioned punishers such as electric shock or aromatic ammonia. Procedures that incorporate common conditioned punishers such as verbal reprimands or nonpreferred activities are less controversial.
2. Can Create Negative Emotional Dynamics
One of the biggest criticisms of positive punishment, especially from the humanist school, is that it can create several negative feelings in the student or patient being disciplined.
For instance, students may grow to resent their teacher or parent when their main association with them involves frequent unpleasant interactions.
Positive punishment can also create feelings of distrust and suspicion that the punishing agent (i.e., teacher or parent) has hostile motives.
These are feelings that are counter to the philosophy of some teachers and parents. They argue that students should see authority figures as individuals to be trusted and admired, rather than feared and resented.
3. Is Uninformative
Another criticism of positive punishment, taken in isolation, is that it teaches what actions should not be engaged, but fails to inform the individual on how to behave correctly.
This criticism is usually overcome with interventions that incorporate teaching replacement behaviors. These are behaviors that serve the same purpose as the unwanted target behavior, but they take a socially acceptable form.
Replacement behaviors allow the patient or student to obtain what they want, but in a positive and constructive manner, and without experiencing aversive stimuli.
4. In Some Cases, Just Doesn’t Work
Although punishment seems like it would be an effective means of changing a person’s behavior, there are some clear examples of it not only not working, but perhaps actually increasing the chances of the unwanted target behavior occurring again.
The most puzzling example is in regards to criminal behavior.
According to Wood (2007), a vast majority of criminals released from prison will be arrested again within three years. Moreover, Brezina and Piquero (2003) point out that extensive research has demonstrated that the best predictor of criminal behavior is previous criminal behavior.
It seems that punishment in the form of incarceration is ineffective. But why?
Sherman (1993) proposed that being incarcerated creates a strong sense of defiance. When punishment is perceived as unfair or excessive, it can cause a lashing-out towards society that involves subsequent criminal behavior.
So, instead of positive punishment decreasing the unwanted target behavior, in some scenarios, it can produce the opposite result and increase the unwanted target behavior.
Positive punishment involves applying an aversive consequence to unwanted behavior. It is intended to decrease the likelihood of that behavior occurring again.
It should not be confused with negative punishment, which is also intended to decrease unwanted behavior, but does so by removing a pleasant stimulus.
Extreme forms of positive punishment are controversial and rarely practiced. Milder forms of positive punishment include requiring the individual to engage in a nonpreferred activity such as doing extra chores.
Criticisms of using positive punishment are that it does not teach the individual what to do, only what not to do.
Another criticism is that it can create a negative emotional dynamic between the authority figure and the student or patient. It can damage trust, reduce admiration, and create hostility and resentment.
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