Punishment is one of the central concepts of behavioral psychology. It is a behavior modification technique whose goal is to decrease or extinguish the repetition of a behavior.
It is also a concept which has been constantly taken up and even criticized by certain disciplines outside psychology, as well as by sub-disciplines within it; especially for pedagogy, educational psychology, clinical psychology and also organizational psychology, among others.
In colloquial language, the term “punishment” has also spread and been loaded with different meanings, which are often they use it as a synonym for emotional or physical harm.
This is why talking about “punishment” can have variations depending on who uses the concept, and can also lead to different confusions. In this article, we will specifically examine what punishment is in the psychology of the behavioral tradition (particularly in operant conditioning) and how it is used.
What is the punishment? Its use in operative conditioning
The concept of punishment applied in psychology comes from the operating conditioning current. The latter was systematized by the American psychologist Frederic Skinner, who took up the more classic theories of conditioning developed by John Watson and Ivan Pavlov; and later worked by another American psychologist: Edward Thorndike.
Classical conditioning refers to how we learn a behavior by presenting a stimulus. Generally speaking, classical conditioning tells us that when faced with the presentation of a stimulus, a response (an action or a behavior) appears. Thus, it is possible to develop behavioral technology capable of creating situations and contexts which increase the probabilities that certain actions will be performed, and reduce the probabilities that others will be performed.
Operative conditioning, on the other hand, also assumes the technical implications of classical conditioning, although it offers other means to achieve this. He suggests that this response be followed by some consequence. And the latter, the consequence, is the element that defines whether the behavior is repeated or diminished.
Thus, operant conditioning analyzes how and what can be the consequences produce or eliminate certain behaviors or actions. Therefore, it was necessary to use different concepts which had a significant impact on both behavior modification theories and interventions. Among these concepts, there is that of “consequence” and that of “punishment”, which we will see developed further on.
Consequence and punishment according to behavioral psychology
In short, the consequence is the effect of behavior. In other words, it is what happens after a certain action occurs. The consequence can have two possible outcomes: either it can cause the repetition of this action, or it can cause a decrease in the action.
The first case is a “positive consequence” because it reinforces the behavior and promotes its reiteration. In the second case, we speak of a “negative consequence” because its main effect is the suppression of the behavior. We then see that although we frequently use concepts such as “positive” or “negative”, in the context of operant conditioning, these are not terms that indicate morality, that is, they are should not be understood as “good”. bad ”, but in terms of its effects and the way a stimulus is presented.
So the consequence can both reinforce behavior and suppress. And this depends on how it is applied and its purpose, which lends itself to enabling the implementation of desirable models of behavior from the point of view of family, society, etc. We can then distinguish two types of consequence:
1. Positive consequence (the reinforcer)
Operant conditioning tells us that to reinforce a behavior, a stimulus must be presented or withdrawn. The goal of both presenting it and removing it is always to reinforce the behavior. The latter can occur through two different actions and elements:
1.1. positive reinforcer
Positive reinforcement is what happens by presenting a pleasant stimulus. For example, when a person receives an incentive (material or immaterial) that he likes, after having had the expected behavior. A classic can be to give a candy to a little child when he has done something that we want to repeat. In the more traditional context of animal experimentationAn example of positive reinforcement is when a rat receives a food ball after pressing a lever.
1.2. negative reinforcer
Negative reinforcement it consists of suppressing an unpleasant stimulus. For example, take away something the person doesn’t like: If a child doesn’t like doing homework, negative reinforcement is to reduce the number of homework after performing a desired behavior (as this will cause the behavior to repeat) .
Another example is when inside a car alarms start to sound that tell us that we are not wearing a seat belt. These alarms are not cleared until we have put on our seat belts. In other words, their removal reinforces our behavior.
2. Negative consequence (punishment)
On the other hand, the negative consequence, also called “punishment”, aims to suppress a behavior. As in the previous cases, it is necessary to present or suppress a stimulus; only in this case the goal is always to extinguish, or at least reduce, the appearance of a behavior. The above follows a more complex learning mechanism than the positive consequence and can occur in two possible ways:
2.1. positive punishment
In this case, a stimulus is presented that causes disgust or rejection, so that the person or body associates a behavior with this unpleasant sensation and then avoids its repetition. For example, in animal experiments, electric shocks were used when they perform unwanted behavior. An example among people, can be punishments based on unpleasant words or physical approaches.
Often the punishments are only extinguished or diminish the behavior temporarily. In addition, they can reinforce the negative emotional association with the behavior or with the conditioned stimulus, which is the situation (it could be the mere presence of a person) that alerts the approach of the aversive stimulus.
2.2. negative punishment
Negative punishment it consists of the withdrawal of a pleasant stimulus. For example, when you take someone out of something they like. A typical case might be to remove a child from a toy they like after performing a behavior that we don’t want them to repeat.
Depending on the consistency and the relationship between the unwanted behavior and the stimulus, this behavior may end in the short or long term; and may or may not generalize to other contexts or people.
In other words, it may happen that the child only suppresses the behavior when he is in front of a specific person (the one who always takes the toy away from him), but does not delete it in front of other people or in front of him. ‘other circumstances. In this case, it is important that there is a logical and immediate relationship between the negative consequence and the behavior that we want to put out. Finally, even if a behavior does succeed in extinguishing itself, this does not necessarily imply that it has been replaced by reference models which result in alternative and more desirable learning.
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- Skinner, BF (1938) The behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Zhao, Y. (2002). Cultural Division on Parenting Discipline, The New York Times.