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Reinforcement and Punishment

Behaviorism vocabulary can be complex and challenging, especially when words have different meanings in common usage and therapeutic situations. Therapists often use words differently than others, which can cause some confusion. 

Reinforcement and Punishment

What is a Behavioral Psychologist?

The two most frequently used words that might be confusing are “punishment” and “reinforcement.”

  • Punishment is bad, a penalty for acting in an unwanted way. A child disobeys his parent and loses access to electronics. The desired effect of the punishment is that the child will not transgress again. 
  • Reinforcement is a reward for doing something right. A child cleans her room and watches her favorite show on TV.

The terms “positive” and “negative” are added when referring to reinforcement and punishment, which may confuse things even more. Punishment versus negative reinforcement can often be the most confusing. 


Below we discuss reinforcement and punishment in more detail. 

The Role Of Reinforcement In Behavior

Reinforcement is any consequence that increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcement is largely unique to each individual. However, some things, such as a sweet treat or increased freedom, are reinforcing for most people.

In behaviorism, there are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative. Below are the definitions and examples of positive and negative reinforcement.

  • Positive reinforcement involves providing something desirable, such as praise, attention, or privileges, to increase the likelihood of a desired behavior occurring again. Common positive reinforcement strategies include giving a child stickers for telling the truth, a dog's favorite treat for coming when called, and an employee receiving a raise for excellent performance reviews.
  • Negative reinforcement also increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated, but it does so by removing an unpleasant consequence after the desired behavior is displayed. Common negative reinforcement strategies include buckling your seat belt to stop the beeping sound, putting on sunscreen to avoid sunburn, and leaving early for work to avoid traffic.

The Role Of Punishment In Behavior

There is a long-standing debate in psychology about the role of punishment in behavior. On one side, there are those who believe punishment is an effective way to change behavior. On the other side, some think punishment is ineffective and has harmful effects. Punishment may have short-term benefits, such as increased obedience, but it can also have longer-term negative consequences, such as increasing aggression or turning individuals against those who are supposed to help them.

There are a few cases in which punishment may be the only option: when the goal is to prevent very bad behavior, when there is no other effective way to get the desired behavior, or when the possible consequences of not punishing are worse than the potential consequences of punishment. In these cases, it is important to use punishment appropriately and sparingly to avoid resentment or increased hostility. Similar to reinforcement, there are two kinds of punishment: positive and negative. Positive and negative punishment can effectively decrease undesired behaviors, but they work differently. 

  • Positive punishment is the addition of an aversive stimulus following a behavior to decrease the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. Time-outs are often used as a form of punishment. Time-outs are usually effective for reducing the possibility of engaging in a problematic behavior by taking away privileges (or time) that the child enjoys. Time-outs can decrease problem behaviors when used correctly but should only be used as a last resort. Other examples of positive punishment include teaching manners early, rewarding good behavior, and providing positive reinforcement like attention and praise.
  • Negative punishment is the removal of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior to decrease the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. For example, if a child throws a tantrum to get a toy, the therapist may take the toy away, which is a form of negative punishment. Disciplinary measures like grounding or sending them to their room without dessert might effectively decrease undesired behaviors but should only be used as a last resort and always preceded by clear verbal communication.

Reinforcement or Punishment

Positive reinforcement is generally more helpful than punishment. First, it has the potential to result in more desired behavior from the person being reinforced. Additionally, positive reinforcement often leads to a person feeling better about themselves, which can motivate them to keep exhibiting the desired behavior. Plus, punishment can lead to resentment or revenge.

Second, positive reinforcement is more motivating. Everyone likes to be rewarded for something they're struggling with, and positive reinforcement lets them know they're doing well, encouraging them to keep trying.

Finally, positive reinforcement is more effective in the long run. Punishment may work in the short term, but it usually takes a little time for people to get used to it and start ignoring it. On the other hand, positive reinforcement can be a lasting motivator. Positive reinforcement may be the way to go if you want to change someone's behavior, not just temporarily stop them from doing something.

Additional Resources on Reinforcement and Punishment Training


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