Positive Punishment: A Pain in the Neck
Before I dive into what Positive Punishment is, let’s review what positive and negative means for behavior. If you’ve read my article on reinforcement, then you should know what these two terms mean, but for ease, let’s go over it one more time.
Positive, when it comes to behavior, means the addition of something. It could be a reinforcer, a stimulus the subject likes (positive reinforcement), or in this case, it adds an aversive, something the subject doesn’t like (positive punishment).
Negative is the subtraction of something. If you’re removing an aversive, then it’s negative reinforcement. If you’re removing a reinforcer, then it’s negative punishment.
For this article, let’s take a look at Positive Punishment.
Positive Punishment is the act of adding an aversive in order to reduce an unwanted behavior. In this case, an aversive is something that your subject doesn’t like. By existing, an aversive should lower the probability that a specific behavior will occur. As a reminder, in order for something to be considered a “punishment,” your action must decrease the probability that a specific behavior will occur.
Punishment works because, as outlined by B.F. Skinner, what controls whether a behavior will happen again is the consequences of the behavior once it’s done. If a behavior is performed and then a reinforcer is given, then the behavior will happen again. If a behavior happens and an aversive is applied, then the behavior is less likely to happen.
Positive punishment follows this same idea but requires the person applying the aversive to know what will be an effective aversive for their subject.
Let’s dive into some examples.
If you’ve ever been ticketed by the police, then you’ve experienced positive punishment. That ticket is an aversive to you, and will make you less likely to speed in the future. I would even argue that the act of being pulled over and wasting time during your day is also the application of an aversive that will keep you from speeding (in front of the police). What adds to the efficacy of tickets, is also the act of paying the ticket is a negative punishment – you’re having money taken away from you.
I would just like to note on that example, that tickets lose a lot of efficacy because, while the timing of the ticket can be immediate, the payment of the ticket happens way after the behavior. On top of that, tickets are not always assigned whenever you speed or break the law on the road. Imagine a world where every time you go over the speed limit, even by 1 mile-an-hour, you’d be immediately assigned a ticket and a sudden loud noise to warn you that you’re getting a ticket. I’d wager that speeding would never occur again.
Another example would be scolding and spanking children. Both of these actions are aversives to children. What’s interesting about this example (as I’ve touched on in the punishment: introduction article) is that this is going to be negatively reinforcing to the parent enacting these punishments. If your child usually throws a tantrum and you, the parent, scold your child, then what follows is usually silence. In some cases, what follows can sometimes be a more compliant child. Both of these outcomes are negatively reinforcing for the parent – you’ve acted in a way that removed an aversive for you, thus, you are more likely to do those behaviors again. This is also one of the reasons why parents can become more punishment heavy as time goes on and why it’s so important for parents ( of human children or furry children) to remember that reinforcement is important too.
Features of Positive Punishment
Positive punishment is useful since its effects are immediate and, in my opinion, is easier to apply in more situations than negative punishment.
Take for example classic laboratory experiments involving mice and electric shocks. For expediency and ease of the experiment, it’s much easier to apply an electric shock (aversive) to your subjects than trying to remove a reinforcer.
A huge boon to using positive punishment however, is how well it pairs with negative reinforcement. When you apply an aversive, by removing the aversive, you are not applying negative reinforcement.
For example, if your child breaks something they weren’t supposed to, or if they act out, and you as their parent gave them extra chores to do as punishment, then you are applying positive punishment. Let’s say your child performs the chores and does a great job of it and also performs behavior you like, then removing those extra chores as a reward is negatively reinforcing for your child – you’re getting rid of an aversive so you can increase the probability that they will keep acting the way you want.
Positive punishment also allows you to establish what behaviors are unacceptable. For people and animals, this can be useful to teach exactly what behaviors are unwanted. For dogs especially, this is extremely effective since most dogs will try to follow whatever their instincts/impulses guide them to.
Despite all of these useful points, positive punishment still suffers from the shortcomings that come with punishment in general. Applying aversives will never teach your subject what is acceptable behavior. I can tell you “no!” a million times, but that won’t tell you that all you were supposed to do was flip a switch or press a button.
For subjects that can generalize extremely well, punishment can leave lasting effects where the subject isn’t sure what counts for punishment and what will not. If a child raises their voice against their parent and then the parent punishes them for that, there is always the possibility that the child isn’t sure if raising their voice at that moment was bad or if raising their voice in general is bad.
Punishments can also cause extinction bursts where your subject increases the behavior as a result of the punishment. In this case, the aversive is not strong enough or effective enough to act as a proper aversive. I’d even argue that the aversive has become a reinforcer because it’s causing the behavior to occur again. Be aware of this when you are using punishment and act accordingly. As I said in the extinction burst article, you want to make sure you NEVER reinforce during an extinction burst. I would even argue increasing the punishment for the burst can be appropriate. Perhaps not increased positive punishment, but following up with a negative punishment may be more effective in that scenario.
Punishments only suppress behavior. The behavior can still occur, but the frequency that it does will be much lower. The behavior can also reappear when the punishment is lifted. Reinforcing an alternate or incompatible behavior can remedy this since your subject now gets what they want and you no longer have to keep applying punishment.
- Scolding your pet for acting in a way you don’t like. Scolding your dog for chewing your shoes is one example
- Motion-based air jets. If you want to keep your cat off your counter, installing one that detects when your cat is on the counter and then releases a jet of air would be positive punishment since it’s applying an aversive for a behavior that you don’t want.
Use punishments carefully. Remember that when you’re applying an aversive that you should always pair it with a reinforcer for the behavior you want.
Also be careful of what your subject will do when an aversive is applied. Extinction bursts can be very dangerous and should be treated with great care.