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Positive Punishment in Operant Conditioning [Definition & Examples]

What is Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is a type of operant conditioning, a theory proposed by psychologist B.F Skinner. Its main purpose is to reduce the future frequency of the behavior by applying an aversive stimulus after the behavior occurs. Positive punishment in psychology is what we refer to as “punishment” in everyday life. It is often used when we want to suppress unwanted behavior. In parenting, the aversive response is often referred to as the negative consequence.

There are two kinds of operant conditioning that can create behavior change – punishment vs. reinforcement. The objective of punishment is to reduce an undesirable behavior occurring the next time, while reinforcement is to increase desired behavior.

The two types of punishment are positive and negative.

The positive in the concept of positive punishment doesn’t mean it’s good. Positive means adding something, in this case, a consequence. To decrease a particular behavior, the consequence has to have an unpleasant effect on the individual or animal it’s used on. 

Negative punishment removes a stimulus to make unwanted behavior less likely to repeat. In that case, the stimulus taken away is usually pleasant or something the person or animal deems valuable. So the negative in negative punishment refers to the removal of a stimulus.

girl cries while dad points finger at her is a positive punishment example in operant conditioning

Positive Punishment Examples

Examples of positive punishment are everywhere around us:

1. When a dog jumps on the table, the owner scolds the dog.

Scolding in dog training is used to reduce the rate of the dog jumping on the

  • Aversive stimulus – scolding
  • Undesired behavior – jumping on the table

2. A police officer issues a ticket to the driver who exceeds the speed limit.

The ticket is used to reduce illegal speeding.

  • Aversive stimulus – speeding ticket
  • Undesired behavior – speeding

3. When a person is late in filing an annual tax return, they have to pay a fine.

A fine is used to deter people from filing late.

  • Aversive stimulus – fine
  • Undesired behavior – filing the tax return late

4. When a child is defiant, the parent applies corporal punishment.

Physical punishment is used to stop the child’s negative behavior.

  • Aversive stimulus – corporal punishment
  • Undesired behavior – a child’s behavior that the parent disapproves

The consequences of positive punishment aren’t always purposefully applied. Sometimes, they are natural consequences.

Examples of natural positive punishment:

  • When a toddler touches a hot stove, they get burned.
  • When a driver speed on the highway, he gets into an accident.
  • When a child refuses to wear a jacket in cold weather, they catch a cold.

Does It Work

Consistency is critical for positive punishments to be effective ways to deter inappropriate behavior. Positive punishment is a very efficient learning tool that stops unwanted behavior if it can be persistently applied. For example, criminals getting jail time for law violations prevents crimes.

However, the problem is that everything tends to return to the state before once the punishments stop.

For example, authoritarian parents who use harsh punishment often think that their children are obedient and well-behaved because that’s how they act when the parents are around. However, when the punisher is not around, the kids can become aggressive toward others. In fact, psychological research shows that children of authoritarian parents tend to show more aggressive behavior in school​1,2​.

Another problem with punishing is that while it stops unwanted behavior, it doesn’t teach the alternative desired behavior.

A child suppresses the urge to hit others when the parents are around because they don’t want to get punished. But once the parents are gone, the child may become aggressive again because they don’t know how else to handle a disagreement with others. Their parents have not taught a specific behavior that can help in that situation.

Positive Punishment in Parenting

Punishment is almost synonymous with discipline in parenting. In the past, yelling and spanking were common disciplines. Scientific research in recent years indicates that spanking​3​ and harsh treatment, such as yelling, are harmful to children4,5​. These parenting techniques have proven to lead to long-term damages such as mental health problems in children. They are also not effective punishment.

Many parents then turn to the popular “time-out”.

Time-out from positive reinforcement is a well-researched behavior modification strategy, recommended by psychologists and pediatricians. The idea is to remove a child from an environment with many reinforcers to a low-reinforcing environment. It is an operant extinction procedure that aims to stop a previously reinforced bad behavior.

Unfortunately, many parents do not know the correct application and use time-out to punish instead.

For example, when a child throws a tantrum for not getting candies before meals may be sent to a time-out corner. Parents often also include elements such as yelling, harsh scolding, or humiliation making time-out for kids an actual punishment instead of an extinction process.

As a result, time-out now bears similar negative side effects as other harsh punishment or parenting treatments.

Positive Punishment in the Classroom

Positive punishment is used in many ways in the classroom.

For example, teachers may assign extra school works to students who misbehave. A teacher may also add a “black star” on the behavior chart if a student uses his cell phone in class.

In recent years, the trend in education is to replace punishment with positive reinforcement strategies, which is another type of operant conditioning. It is done by adding something to reinforce good behaviors in class instead.

Final Thoughts

Positive punishment can be a simple way to stop unacceptable behavior quickly. But in the long term, especially if the punishment cannot be consistently implemented over time, other disciplinary strategies such as positive parenting and inductive discipline are better alternative options to teach children good behavior.


  1. 1.
    Baldry AC, Farrington DP. Parenting influences on bullying and victimization. Legal and Criminological Psychology. Published online September 1998:237-254. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8333.1998.tb00364.x
  2. 2.
    Baldry AC, Farrington DP. Bullies and delinquents: personal characteristics and parental styles. J Community Appl Soc Psychol. Published online January 2000:17-31. doi:
  3. 4.
    Afifi TO, Ford D, Gershoff ET, et al. Spanking and adult mental health impairment: The case for the designation of spanking as an adverse childhood experience. Child Abuse & Neglect. Published online September 2017:24-31. doi:10.1016/j.chiabu.2017.01.014
  4. 5.
    Holmes SJ, Robins LN. The Role of Parental Disciplinary Practices in the Development of Depression and Alcoholism. Psychiatry. Published online February 1988:24-36. doi:10.1080/00332747.1988.11024377


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