How do you get a child to behave? To your dog to listen to you? To a client to do the work that they need to do to get results? If you have ever worked with other people or pets, you know that the answer isn’t so simple.
Or is it?
Psychologists have been fascinated with the ways that people learn information, make decisions, and perform certain behavior. They have studied motivation, thought processes, and even how things like memory impact who we are and what we do. But psychology doesn’t just look at the individual. Certain concepts within psychology have attempted to look at how one person can influence another. If a parent could get a child to behave in a certain way, what does that say about the human mind? What does that say about curbing unwanted behaviors, and encouraging more positive ones?
As psychologists attempted to answer these questions, they discovered a concept known as “positive punishment.” I know this term might sound contradictory, but stay with me. This video will go through what positive punishment looks like, how it fits into some of psychology’s most influential theories, and when positive punishment actually works to curb an unwanted behavior. In reality, changing someone’s behavior isn’t always so simple - but an understanding of punishment, reinforcement, and operant conditioning can help you when you are trying to influence how another person or animal behaves.
What is Positive Punishment?
Positive Punishment is when you add a stimulus to help remove a certain behavior. For example, if you shout at your child who has their hand near the stove, they will likely move and avoid burning their hand.
Positive punishment is a method used to curb undesirable behaviors from happening. Let’s say you have a cat that won’t stop hopping up onto the countertop. You want this behavior to stop. There are a few different routes that you could go about, but one of the most well-known is spraying the cat with water. (Some people use lemon water, vinegar, or a mix of these things, but they are all considered “positive punishment.”)
Why is this a “positive” punishment? Well, rather than taking something away, you are adding something to produce a negative outcome. You are adding the spray so it may be associated with the behavior of jumping on the countertop. Nothing is being taken away from the cat - no food, toys, etc.
This is what we mean by “positive” punishment. This term doesn’t speak to whether or not the experience is positive for anyone involved, or whether it’s a positive way to curb unwanted behavior. You are simply adding something to the situation.
Don’t worry. I’ll offer some more examples if you’re still scratching your head over the idea of “positive” punishment. But before we dive into that, let’s talk about where this concept came from.
Punishment, as well as reinforcement, are important concepts within the idea of operant conditioning, or Skinnerian conditioning. This last name is a reference to B.F. Skinner, the American behavioral psychologist who shaped the way that many people in the field look at learning and behavior. About 30 years before Skinner came on the scene, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov had conducted some pretty famous experiments on dogs. These experiments suggested that behaviors could be learned by associating one thing with another, like a bell with drooling.
But Skinner didn’t want to make dogs drool at the sound of a bell. He looked deeper into what motivated people. By understanding our motivations, he thought, he could shape the way that people make decisions and behave. Even though Skinner first brought the ideas of positive punishment or negative reinforcement to the world of psychology in the 1930s, they have clearly stuck. Parents, teachers, law enforcement officers - even friends, coaches, or partners - use positive punishment and other concepts within operant conditioning to produce desired effects.
Even though behaviorism is not the central focus of most psychologists, concepts within behaviorism, including positive punishment, still remain as practices today. Even if you never identified certain consequences as “positive punishment,” you were continuing the legacy of BF Skinner and other behavioral psychologists.
Examples of Positive Punishment
By now, you might have a good idea of what positive punishment looks like. You have experienced it at school, at work, or at home.
Positive punishment looks like this:
- Telling your child to write a note of apology to a classmate whose feelings they’ve hurt
- A coach telling someone on their team to do 20 push-ups after mouthing off
- A woman slapping a man in the face after he said something inappropriate to her
- A shock collar shocking a dog if they try to leave their family yard
- Shouting at a child who is putting their hand near the stove
- A police officer gives you a ticket because you failed to put your lights on
- A parent gives their children extra chores because they stole an ice cream bar from the fridge
- A manager raises his voice at an employee who is using their personal phone during office hours, humiliating the employee
- Fraternity brothers forcing rushes to eat dog food for getting answers wrong on a quiz
Clearly, there is a wide range of examples of positive punishment, and not all of them appear like they are great solutions to the problem of unwanted behavior. But each of these examples have one thing in common. Something is “added” as a response to an undesirable behavior. That something could be a shout, a slap, or a task. Nothing is taken away. The intention of adding this shout, slap, etc. is to make sure the person does not complete that behavior again.
Does it Work?
Anyone who has a cat that likes to jump on countertops or a child with a dangerous curiosity knows that positive punishment isn’t always a “one and done” situation. Sometimes, it is. Your parents could shout at you one time after you put your hand near the stove and you’ll never do it again. But, like the motivations of people and animals, positive punishment is more complicated than that. This is what psychologists like BF Skinner wanted to figure out when they conducted experiments regarding operant conditioning and punishment.
Consider the Effects of Positive Punishment
Even BF Skinner knew that positive punishment wasn’t the only way to change behavior. He urged people to consider other motivations, feelings, or effects that may come into play when introducing adverse stimuli after an unwanted behavior.
In the 1930s, corporal punishment was a very common punishment in school and at home. Children who behaved badly were hit with rulers, paddles, or hands. Obviously, this punishment isn’t so common today. As psychologists looked closer at this form of positive punishment, they saw that there were many other side effects that occurred alongside curbing the unwanted behavior. Children who were hit or spanked not only received physical injuries, but they were also affected mentally. Corporal punishment is linked to antisocial behavior and increased aggression. The effects are so consequential that 30 countries have banned corporal punishment of children in one form or another.
Does this mean all forms of positive punishment are bad? Not necessarily. The examples given earlier range widely, and not all include physical violence or laying a hand on someone (or something) else. I use this example simply as a reminder that curbing behavior isn’t so simple. Your actions could have unwanted effects. Referring to psychologists and other experts can offer guidance on what punishments (or reinforcements) work best on children, pets, etc.
How to Best Use Positive Punishment
There are ways that you or another person can approach positive punishment in a way that curbs unwanted behaviors without any other side effects. Adverse stimuli that are less aggressive or violent could discourage a child from performing a behavior without affecting their mental or physical health. Asking a child to do tedious chores in response to a bad behavior has the potential to be far less damaging than smacking them. Talking them through the positive punishment can also help the child to connect the undesirable behavior with the adverse stimuli.
Immediacy also helps to build the association between the behavior and the stimuli. If you were to smack a child for something they did three weeks prior, they are unlikely to understand why they are receiving that punishment. In future videos about reinforcement, we will discuss the “schedules” that behavioral psychologists have mapped out if you want to reinforce a positive behavior. The optimal “schedule” for positive punishment is one that is consistent and immediately after the unwanted behavior.
Positive punishment is just one way to try and curb unwanted behavior. A person could try, for example, to use negative punishment, in which they take something away from a person or animal immediately after displaying an unwanted behavior. And in situations where a person wants to encourage wanted behaviors, reinforcement may be used. Positive punishment is just one tiny piece of operant conditioning, which is one piece of behaviorism, which is just one school in the study of psychology! There is still a lot more to learn!