The Impact of Punishment on Behavior - Learning Lab

The Impact of Punishment on Behavior


In a previous post, we examined the concept of reinforcement, with a focus on the fact that something is only reinforcing if it increases the likelihood of future occurrences of a behavior. The counterpart to reinforcement is punishment.

The term “punishment” is often misused by most of us. This error occurs when we make assumptions about what is “punishing”. If I were to ask you to list a number of punishers, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear examples such as “losing privileges”, “grounding”, “time-out”, “spanking”. In reality none of these are actually punishing all the time. They have the potential, but we don’t know if something is punishing until we have used it and then afterwards observed a decrease in that “bad” behavior. If we see a decrease in that unwanted behavior we can begin to assume that our action was likely a “punisher”.

If little Johnny colors on the wall with crayons and we send him to his room as a punishment, we won’t know if being sent to his room was a punishment until we actually observe a change in behavior. Simply put, if we see that Johnny no longer colors on the wall or stops himself when warned “if you do that, you will be sent to your room”, then we can begin to ascertain that this was indeed an effective punishment. In contrast, if we send Johnny to his room after engaging in this behavior, but the next day he does the same thing and the next day and so on, sending him to his room is not “punishing”.

Over the course of my career, I have actively made a choice to avoid using punishment when at all possible and, in turn, finding other means of changing an unwanted behavior. That is another discussion altogether. But, simply put, I attempt to change behavior through positive reinforcement, relationship building, and manipulation of the environment. If I do this effectively, I remove the likelihood that I will have to use punishment.

Punishment can often be used in a very “aversive” way, which may decrease behavior in the immediate (e.g., a use of violence can quickly end a behavior in that moment), but also may upset the individual, damage the relationship, and possibly lead to an increase in other behavior in the long term, not to mention the moral implications of using certain types of punishment.

Let’s return to our scenario we began discussing in our last post. 
Johnny is a four-year-old boy. His mother takes him to the store with her. After about 30 minutes, Johnny is growing tired and says, “Mom, I want to go home”. His mother says, “Hold on, we are almost done”. Johnny then sits down on the floor and begins to cry and yell and bang his fists on the floor. His mother tells him to “Stop now, or you will get less TV tonight ”, but he only bangs louder. This is really embarrassing and stressful and she is not sure what to do.

I intentionally made a point of using the word “less” in his mother’s threat. She is using a term that is relative and abstract. Johnny’s definition of what “less” means could be very different from what his mother means. The threat of punishment is much more likely to be effective if it is definable and if it can actually be carried out. Telling a child that he will “never get to watch TV again” is a statement that cannot be carried out and therefore it likely has little effectiveness, especially after the child realizes that the parent is not able to follow through and, as a result, is not consistent.

Instead, providing a statement such as, “You need to stand up when I count to 3 or else you will lose TV, computer, and iPad access tonight”, provides a very clear consequence that can easily be followed through on and has a clear set of instructions to do so (e.g., “When I count to 3).