Positive and Negative Punishment

Positive and negative punishment are two sides of the same coin. In this article, we break down their similarities and differences, offer some examples, and explain their effects in detail.
Positive and Negative Punishment
Laura Ruiz Mitjana

Written and verified by the psychologist Laura Ruiz Mitjana.

Last update: 25 September, 2022

Positive and negative punishment. Do you know what these two learning procedures consist of? Do you know how they differ? What they’re used for? In this article, we’ll describe what each of the punishment procedures entails and what’s required for them to be effective.

In addition, we’ll explain the differences between positive and negative punishment, give examples of them, and how each of them is applied. We’ll highlight the methods that are usually applied in childhood and in neurodevelopmental disorders. These methods can be applied by parents, educators, teachers, and psychologists. Of course, it’s a good idea to get to know them well so that you can use them effectively, and above all, with no harm to your child.

“Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

-John Cotton Dana-

mother punishing daughter

Positive and negative punishment

Punishment is a behavior modification technique based on behavioral theories. More precisely, it’s based on operant conditioning and the idea that the consequences of a certain behavior affect its execution and its frequency of appearance. Punishment consists of intentionally administering an undesired consequence, contingent on the individual’s response. For punishment to be effective, it must be immediate, intense, sudden (not gradual), and unavoidable.

So what’s the difference between positive and negative punishment? Basically, positive punishment implies the appearance of a stimulus (aversive). On the other hand, negative punishment implies the withdrawal or disappearance of a stimulus (this stimulus being positive or pleasant).

Both procedures have the same function. They reduce the future probability of a particular response. For example, they reduce or eliminate a certain behavior, one that’s usually inappropriate. Both types of punishment are used to reduce children’s tantrums, yelling, misbehavior, swearing, not doing homework, disobedience, etc.

Positive punishment

As we mentioned earlier, positive punishment implies the appearance of an aversive or unwanted stimulus for the child. In this case, positive indicates ‘the appearance of’. Positive punishment can be used with multiple types of stimuli, actions, or objects.

For example, if a child is biting their nails, a positive punishment would be to put an unpleasant substance on them, favoring the extinction of the behavior. Other examples are:

  • Yelling at a child for bad behavior.
  • Forcing a teenager to do an unpleasant task when they misbehave.
  • Adding tasks and responsibilities when they don’t follow the rules.
  • Assigning extra work to students who forget to turn in their assignments.
  • Implementing more rules and restrictions when a teen does something they shouldn’t.

It should be noted that, although positive punishment is a widely used technique, many education experts don’t recommend it. That’s because it doesn’t offer any learning for the child about alternative or appropriate behaviors, as other behavior modification techniques do (for example, overcorrection).

As a matter of fact, this type of punishment should only be chosen in exceptional cases, when it’s become clear that other methods aren’t going to have the expected results. Also, if there’s a clear risk to the individual and immediate intervention is required.

Positive and negative punishment have the same function: to eliminate or reduce the probability of appearance of behaviors considered to be inappropriate.

How to apply positive punishment

With positive punishment, an individual can learn not to perform specific behaviors. However, certain rules must be strictly followed. These rules, according to Barraca (2014) are:

  • The appearance of the aversive stimulation should be as immediate as possible after the emission of the response.
  • There must be a contingency between the emission of the response and the unpleasant stimulus. Each and every time the undesirable response is emitted, aversive stimulation must appear.
  • Aversive stimulation must be intense for it to change behavior.
  • Positive punishment should be administered without the influence of mood. It shouldn’t be a consequence of anger.
  • Positive punishment can’t be linked to a reinforcer. For example, positive punishment will be ineffective if a teenager gets their friends to admire them for their teacher’s reprimands.
  • As with all behavior elimination procedures, any minimal approach to the alternative desired behavior should be reinforced. The individual must have the opportunity to receive reinforcement for the alternative behaviors.
  • The positive punishment technique should be used for the benefit of the punished, not the punisher.
  • Positive punishment should gradually be replaced by less aversive procedures, such as reinforcements.

Positive punishment should rarely be used as a method of control. In fact, it’s extremely common for punished people to develop feelings of frustration, discomfort, and anger. Furthermore, they might imitate punishing behaviors and practice them with other people. They may also cheat, hide, or lie to avoid punishment.

Negative punishment

In this case, negative indicates ‘the withdrawal’ or ‘the disappearance of’. As in the previous case, the stimuli used are extremely diverse. For instance, activities, objects, food, and actions. It all depends on the value attributed by the individual to whom the negative punishment is applied.

One example of negative punishment would be withdrawing the privilege of watching TV for a number of days for a child who hasn’t done their homework. In this case, the stimulus (TV) must be pleasant or desired by the child for the punishment to be really effective. Other examples are:

  • If two children are fighting over control of the TV, the mother simply takes the remote control away from both of them.
  • A teenager who fails an academic exam for playing with their cell phone is punished by their parents by them confiscating the phone for a week.
  • A child physically assaults a classmate, so their teacher takes away their ‘good behavior’ tokens that can be redeemed for prizes.

The negative punishment is the same as the cost of response. For example, withdrawing points from someone’s license for driving drunk.

When are the punishments used?

Positive and negative punishment are two processes usually used in the field of education and, more specifically, in special education. Consequently, they’re used with all children, both children and adults with intellectual disabilities, and those with autism or certain neurodevelopmental disorders, etc. However, they can also be applied to anyone and at any age.

Logically, depending on the age and characteristics of the individual, we must adapt each of these procedures so as not to lose their effectiveness. In addition, they can also be used with adults in some cases.

“To teach is not to transfer knowledge, but to create the possibilities for the production or construction of knowledge… Whoever teaches learns in the act of teaching, and whoever learns teaches in the act of learning.”

-Paulo Freire-

Curious facts about punishment

An investigation, carried out by scientists from Harvard University (USA) and published in the journal Nature Neuroscience, focused on the study of brain mechanisms that influence when choosing the severity of punishment.

The study concluded that ” The intentional manipulation of language to present an event in a more gruesome way or to present clear images of an event led to imposing a more severe punishment if the participant in question thought or believed that the incident had been intentional”.

In addition, the researchers found that the amygdala, a structure involved in the processing of fear, anger, and emotions, was activated when the participants viewed extremely cruel images. Interestingly, this effect was only seen in the brain scans of participants who knew there was an intention behind the act.

illuminated tonsil

Beyond positive and negative punishment

As you can see, positive and negative punishment are procedures with the same function. However, they differ in that each one implies either the presentation of an aversive stimulus or the withdrawal of an enjoyable stimulus, respectively.

Beyond these techniques, there are others that are considered more useful and beneficial for the child’s learning and development. As a matter of fact, punishment is becoming increasingly obsolete due to the growing advocacy for more respectful and flexible parenting.

In addition, it’s not only important to teach the child what it’s not okay to do, but what they should be doing instead (alternative behaviors). These techniques include positive reinforcement, overcorrection, and differential reinforcement of alternative behaviors.

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