Negative Punishment

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Negative Punishment: You’re OUT!

If you haven’t already read my introduction on punishment then make sure you start there. 

Since this is one of the most misunderstood points to behavior training, let’s briefly talk about what “negative” and “positive” mean in terms of operant conditioning. In behavior training, “positive” means to add something. “Negative” means to take away something. 

To further clarify some vocabulary, “punishment” is always an act that’s done in order to reduce the probability that a behavior will happen again in the future. 

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a look at what “Negative Punishment” is. 

Taking Away the Goodies

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Negative Punishment is the act of taking away a reinforcer. So if there’s something that your subject likes (reinforcer), then if you wanted to punish a behavior then you take away the thing the subject likes. In a nutshell, this is negative punishment 

Negative Punishment works well since punishments are usually done when an unwanted behavior occurs. In my own experience, negative punishment can be more effective than positive punishment, but you have to know what to take away. Taking away a minor reinforcer like a toy from your dog may not work very well, but removing your dog completely from a situation it likes will be very effective. 

Everyday Examples

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In my opinion, negative punishment and negative reinforcement tend to be the two most common things you’ll encounter in your day-to-day life.

You’re being negatively punished when you’re being forced to pay a ticket- a reinforcer is being taken away from you because of an action or behavior that you did. 

Jail and prison are also examples of negative punishment, since you’re being removed from all the reinforcers society has to offer you.

Parents will also use this on their children all the time. If you’ve ever heard the phrase “time out” then you know the concept of negative punishment. If time-out had a full name, it would be “time-out from reinforcers.” As the parent, you’re removing a child from all the reinforcers they enjoy such as video games, smartphone, etc. This scenario is also why identifying reinforcers and punishers in your subject’s life is extremely important. If you know what reinforcers your child surrounds themselves with, then you’ll know where not to send them/what to take away if you want to use negative punishment.

This is also one of the reasons why, when parents say time-out doesn’t work, I don’t believe they know why time-out can be effective. Usually, you’ll see these parents try grounding the child and sending the kids to their rooms as punishment. But in these rooms are their smartphones, games, books, and several other reinforcers that make the punishment ineffective. 

If you’re ever not sure about the effectiveness of Negative Punishment, then you can look at how effective solitary confinement is on prisoners. Solitary confinement is negative punishment taken to its extreme – where you remove all possible stimuli for your subject. There is a massive load of psychological and physiological effects that happen to subjects that are put into a situation where you’ve removed everything. The debate surrounding solitary confinement is rarely “it’s not effective,” and is instead “it’s not effective at rehabilitation.” People with adverse behavioral problems may have their problems aggravated more by the many effects of solitary confinement. 

Just to clarify, I’m not saying to put your dog or your child into solitary confinement. But I’m suggesting a quiet place where there isn’t a bunch of distracting stimuli. This way, when you use negative punishment, the punishment remains effective due to the lack of reinforcers.

Features of Negative Punishment

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In my opinion, the best part of negative punishment is that it’s easier to manage and arguably more moral than positive punishment. Positive punishment requires inflicting some kind of discomfort or pain. Sometimes that means adding something the subject definitely doesn’t like, and it’s very easy to get carried away with it as a result. 

Negative punishment in comparison is easier to manage since you can write down what you’re taking away and for how long. The punishment regimens I’ve seen will write down how long and what is being done in order to make sure you aren’t going overboard.

But as always, be aware the punishers are negatively reinforcing to the person using them. If your dog is barking non-stop and you take them away into the time-out corner and the dog stops barking, you’re more likely to put your dog on time-out again just to make the barking stop instead of reinforcing something else. 

The best thing to do here is to use negative punishment’s natural relationship with positive reinforcement. When you put your subject through negative punishment, you are by definition removing a reinforcer. When you return that reinforcer because of a behavior the subject did, then you are positively reinforcing them. 

I cannot stress this enough – make sure you always pair punishments with reinforcers  One of the major weaknesses with punishments will always be that they do not tell your subject what they should be doing. Instead, they tell your subject only what they shouldn’t be doing, which can be problematic. Let’s say you’re a store manager and one of your employees can’t seem to be nice to your customers. You can yell or scold this employee everytime they say something they shouldn’t have, but now all they know is what they shouldn’t be doing and there are a million different behaviors that they shouldn’t be doing in a given moment. At this rate,  you’re going to have to go through every single unwanted behavior if you use punishments only. Instead, you could also provide a compliment every time this wayward employee says something close to nice or acceptable. You can keep up the punishment, but it’s equally important to let this employee the kind of thing they should be saying. 

Pet Examples

  • If your dog starts behaving poorly in a play area, then you could remove them from it and put them into an area where there are no reinforcers for your dog. 
  • If you’re playing a game with your dog and your dog starts to take it too seriously (they’re showing obvious signs of aggression or being very protective over something) then you as the owner can stop playing with them. This is negative punishment cause you’re removing the reinforcer of play. 

 

Kennels and Time-outs

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I want to touch on an important distinction that I think most dog owners tend to mess up – kennels and why you shouldn’t use them for time-outs. 

I’ve met my fair share of dog owners who tell their dogs to “go to their kennel” as if it’s on par with sending their child to their room. 

To a degree, they aren’t wrong. You are sending your dog to their room. But kennels tend to act more like a dog’s den – it’s a quiet place away from everything else where the dog can feel safe and protected.

If the dog has a strong association between the kennel and the kennel as a den, then sending them to their kennel isn’t the worst thing you can do. However, I strongly advise against it. The reason for this is you’re creating a new association between the dog’s safe place with punishment. Your dog should not see their room as a place they HAVE to go to when they’re being punished. 

I’ve seen and met far too many dogs who’s owners have said “oh my dog is impossible to kennel train!” But in actuality, the dog was improperly kennel trained in the first place. You have to get your dog to see it as their safe place first before you can do anything else. If you put your dog into a kennel and then leave them there without any prior training then they’ll see it as a prison instead of their room. 

If you take the time to build a connection between the kennel and reinforcers, then you’ll create a place where your dog will be happy to go to. Just make sure you don’t create a new connection between these places and punishment. 

The best example I’ve seen of this, is whenever I visit my friend, who I will name “Janet” for this article, and her short-haired chihuahua, “Polly.” Janet has done a wonderful job of kennel training Polly, and as a result whenever Polly wants to take a nap during the day or just relax, Polly will go to her kennel. One time that I did hang out with Janet, she and her husband got into a rather loud fight. After a minute or two of watching Janet and her husband bicker about what should be done with the garbage, Polly decided to trot straight to her kennel. She closed the door behind her, curled up, and went straight to sleep. This is the kind of behavior you want your dog to be able to do – your dog wants a break and it knows exactly where to take its break. In this way, your dog can also have some semblance of self-care.

Conclusion

Negative punishment is one of the most commonly used ways of punishing bad behavior. This is because, taken to its extreme, it can have lasting and damaging effects on your subject (solitary confinement). 

But when this is used wisely, negative punishment can be a useful tool that doesn’t involve administrating pain in order for your subject to learn what is unacceptable behavior.  

Hopefully after reading this article, you can see how to use negative punishment in a way that will benefit you and your subject without either getting harmed in the process.

 

  

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