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What is Negative Punishment

In this article, we will review negative punishment, definition, examples, and its drawbacks.

Boy cries and tries to get parents' fingers off iPad. Taking the iPad away is negative punishment.

American psychologist B.F. Skinner developed the theory of operant conditioning, which stated that a person or animal’s behavior could be increased or decreased by adding or removing appropriate stimuli following that behavior. 

Two types of operant conditioning can reduce target behavior – positive punishment and negative punishment.

What Is Negative Punishment

Negative punishment, an operant conditioning technique, reduces a behavior by taking away a favorable stimulus following that action.

In psychology, positive refers to adding a stimulus, while negative refers to removing one.

Because negative punishment decreases an undesired behavior by removing a stimulus, the stimulus involved must be pleasant or essential.

The person or animal learns that to not lose their favorable stimulus again, they must stop the behavior. Because they achieve learning by the withdrawal of something, negative punishment is also known as “punishment by removal.”

Examples

  • A fifth-grader boy disrupts the class frequently; the teacher removes his recess privilege. The disruptive behavior stops after the boy repeatedly loses recess times, the favorable stimulus.
  • A driver parks his car at an illegal spot and receives a fine of $270. The illegal parking is the behavior the police wish to stop by taking away his money, the pleasant stimulus.
  • Negative punishment can also apply to animals. A dog barks to get its owner’s attention. As soon as the dog stops barking, the owner looks at it attentively and praises it. When the dog barks again, the owner looks away. Eventually, the barking stops because the dog learns it loses his owner’s attention if it barks.
Boy sits in classroom alone while a girl leaves her seat to have recess, and negative punishment examples

Contingency, Contiguity, Consistency, and Effectiveness

Negative punishment can be extremely effective when the following factors are present:

  • Contingency: stimulus removal is dependent upon the behavior
  • Contiguity: stimulus removal happens immediately after the behavior
  • Consistency: stimulus is removed each time the behavior appears

Contingency

Contingency describes the dependent nature of the punishment on the behavior. If the punishment is applied whenever the target behavior appears, then the punishment depends on the appearance of the undesired behavior. 

However, if the removal of that stimulus happens no matter whether the act appears or not, or before the behavior occurs, then negative punishment is less likely to work.

Continguity

Contiguity is another variable that can affect the effectiveness of negative punishment. Contiguity is the immediacy of the behavior and stimulus removal. 

If punishment is delayed, the suppression of behavior may not be as effective​1​. When there is a gap between the behavior and stimulus removal, it weakens the association. In addition, other actions may appear in the meanwhile, and this behavior then mistakenly becomes the one being suppressed.

Consistency

Negative punishment also works well if it is applied consistently. Consider speeding. People still regularly speed despite the possibility of receiving a traffic ticket because they don’t get one every time. They are only issued with one if they are caught. So, the negative punishment is not applied consistently.

police issues ticket to woman driver as she watches is also an examples of negative punishment

Problems with Negative Punishment

One significant issue of using negative punishment to curb a behavior is that it works for as long as the stimulus is consistently removed. However, once the punishment stops, the undesired behavior is very likely to resume.

Another drawback is, while it can stop an undesired behavior, it doesn’t provide information on what the desired action is.

Take, for example, if a student misbehaves in class, the teacher takes away their token gold star. This penalty may have a deterring effect on the conduct. But if a child is misbehaving because they are anxious, the punishment doesn’t teach the child how else to deal with the emotion. Consequently, this forceful behavior restraint may result in mental or emotional problems for the child​2​.


References

  1. 1.
    Meindl JN, Casey LB. INCREASING THE SUPPRESSIVE EFFECT OF DELAYED PUNISHERS: A REVIEW OF BASIC AND APPLIED LITERATURE. Behav Intervent. May 2012:129-150. doi:10.1002/bin.1341
  2. 2.
    Skinner BF. Science and Human Behavior. Simon and Schuster; 1965.