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Positive Punishment in Operant Conditioning [Definition & Examples]

Positive punishment is often used in life when we want to suppress unwanted behavior. Let’s examine its definition, usage and examples, especially when it comes to parenting.

A woman points at a girl who is sitting on a couch, scolding is a positive punishment different from negative reinforcement or classical conditioning

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 likelihood of an undesired behavior repeating in the future by applying an aversive stimulus after the behavior occurs. Positive punishment in psychology is what we refer to as “punishment” in everyday life. The aversive response is what we refer to as (negative) consequence in parenting.

There are two types of operant conditionings – punishment and reinforcement. The objective of punishment is to reduce an undesirable behavior occurring again in the future while reinforcement is to increase desired behavior.

And there are two types of punishment – positive and negative.

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

The opposite of positive is negative. Negative punishment refers to taking away 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 the stimulus.

Examples

Examples of positive punishment are everywhere around us:

  • When a dog jumps on the table, the owner scolds the dog.
    Scolding is used to reduce the rate of the dog jumping on the table.

    Aversive stimulus – scolding
    Undesired behavior – jumping on the table
  • A police officer issues a parking ticket to the driver who parks illegally.
    The parking ticket is applied to reduce illegal parking.

    Aversive stimulus – parking ticket
    Undesired behavior – illegal parking
  • 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

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

Examples of natural positive punishment:

  • When a toddler touches a hot oven, 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.
police issues a ticket to driver using punishment negative  results

Does It Work

Consistency is critical for positive punishment to be effective. If it can be persistently applied, positive punishment is a very efficient learning tool that stops unwanted behavior. For example, criminals getting jail time for law violation prevents crimes.

However, the problem is that everything returns to the state before once 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 is around. However, when the punisher is not around, their kids become aggressive towards others. Research shows that children of authoritarian parents tend to be aggressive 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.

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Positive Punishment in Parenting

Punishment is almost synonymous with discipline in parenting. In the past, yelling and spanking were common disciplines. Studies in recent years indicate 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. 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 examples, when a child throws a temper 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 by positive reinforcement, which is adding something to reinforce good behaviors in class instead.

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Final Thoughts

Positive punishment can be a valuable tool in stopping unacceptable behavior quickly and effectively. But for long term results, especially if the punishment cannot be consistently implemented, other disciplinary strategies such as positive parenting and inductive discipline are good alternative options to teach good behavior.


References

  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.
  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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