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Positive Punishment in Operant Conditioning

Positive punishment is often used in life when we want to suppress unwanted behavior. Let’s examine what this operant conditioning can do.

A woman points at a girl who is sitting on a couch, scolding is a positive punishment

What is Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is a type of operant conditioning, a theory created by psychologist B.F Skinner. It aims to make undesired behavior less likely to repeat in the future by applying an aversive stimulus. Positive punishment in psychology is what we refer to as “punishment” in everyday life. The aversive stimulus is what we refer to as “negative consequence”.

There are two types of punishment – positive and negative.

The positive in positive punishment doesn’t mean it’s pleasant or high quality. It means adding something, in this case a stimulus, which is also called an outcome or consequence. To decrease a particular behavior, the consequence has to have an unpleasant effect on the person or animal it’s used on. 

The opposite of positive punishment is negative punishment. Negative punishment refers to taking away a stimulus to make unwanted behavior less likely to repeat. The stimulus taken away is usually pleasant or something the person or animal deems valuable. So the negative in negative punishment only refers to “removing”. It’s not the quality of the removed stimulus.


Examples of positive punishment are everywhere around us:

  • When a dog jumps on the table, the owner scolds the dog. The owner applies an aversive stimulus/outcome (scolding) to decrease undesirable behavior (jumping on the table). 
  • The police issue a parking ticket to the driver who parks illegally. Receiving a ticket is a consequence that deters the driver from parking in the wrong spot again.
  • When a person is late in filing an annual tax return, they have to pay a fine. A fine is an aversive outcome of filing late.

The consequence in positive punishment doesn’t always have to be purposefully applied. Sometimes, there are natural consequences.

Examples of natural positive punishment:

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

Does It Work

If it can be consistently applied, positive punishment is a very efficient learning tool that stops unwanted behavior. For example, criminals getting jail time for law violation is always enforced to prevent crimes.

Consistency is critical for this to be effective. Positive punishment can work quite well in suppressing bad behavior immediately when the punishment is consistently applied. The problem is that everything returns to the state before once the punisher stops.

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 parents are not around, then it’s different. Research shows that children of authoritarian parents tend to be aggressive in school​1,2​.

Another problem with positive punishment is that while it stops unwanted behavior, it doesn’t teach alternatives. 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.

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 and harsh treatment, such as yelling, are harmful to children​3,4​. Many parents then turn to the popular “time-out”.

A 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 that and use it as a punishment instead.

Parents often include elements such as yelling, harsh scolding, or humiliation into a time-out making it an actual punishment instead of an extinction process. It now bears similar negative side-effects of other harsh treatments.

Positive Punishment in the Classroom

Positive punishment was often used in the classroom in the past. For example, teachers may assign extra work to students who hasn’t done their homework. In recent years, the trend in education is to replace punishment by positive reinforcement, which is adding something to reinforce good behaviors.

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 options to teach good behavior.


  1. 1.
    Baldry AC, Farrington DP. Parenting influences on bullying and victimization. Legal and Criminological Psychology. September 1998:237-254. doi:10.1111/j.2044-8333.1998.tb00364.x
  2. 2.
  3. 4.
    Holmes SJ, Robins LN. The Role of Parental Disciplinary Practices in the Development of Depression and Alcoholism. Psychiatry. February 1988:24-36. doi:10.1080/00332747.1988.11024377
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