Understanding Psychological Punishment

Medically reviewed by Audrey Kelly, LMFT
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Experiencing mental health concerns due to punishment?

Psychological punishment can refer to a variety of actions meant to psychologically affect others so that they will engage in the desired behavior. Although punishment may have been used extensively in the past, positive reinforcement psychology is often more highly recommended today. If you are experiencing mental health concerns due to experiences with punishment, you may wish to consider online therapy.

The law of effect

Dr. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, or B.F. Skinner, was a psychologist who thought classical conditioning may have been too simple to explain human behavior accurately. Therefore, he decided to use the causes of action and consequences to determine why we do what we do. Skinner based his operant conditioning on Dr. Edward Thorndike's Law of Effect. Operant conditioning is a method of behavior modification (learning) which uses rewards or punishments.

The Law of Effect theory was that satisfying responses can cause an individual's actions to be repeated, and unwelcome responses can cause these actions to occur less frequently. For example, if you did something nice for someone else, and they praised you for it, you might be more likely to do it again.

Dr. Skinner found three different operant responses that often follow certain behaviors. These include:

  • Neutral responses, which are those that do not decrease or increase the probability of the behavior happening again.
  • Reinforcement, which is a response that increases the chances of a certain behavior happening again. 
  • Punishments, which are responses that weaken the behavior and lessen the chance that it will happen again.

Definition of psychological punishment

Psychological punishment can include ignoring, yelling, intimidating, or nagging someone to do or not do something. Other forms of punishment that can be traumatic include physical and verbal abuse, swearing, and violent anger. These forms of punishment are often effective because the person on the receiving end can be filled with fear, shame, or guilt. These methods of punishment should never be used as they may not teach the individual anything but fear and violence and are likely to have negative impacts.

Physical punishment, also known as corporal punishment, specifically inflicts physical bodily pain, but is also highly likely to cause psychological distress as well.

Positive punishment versus negative punishment 

Positive punishment is a type of punishment that produces a stimulus that can cause a behavior or activity to stop. For example, let's say your child runs into the street, and you yell at them. When your child is no longer in the street, you stop yelling at them. This can increase the chance that your child will stay out of the street in the future because they will likely associate being in the street with being yelled at.

Even pain can be considered a positive punishment. When you do something that causes pain and then stop doing it, and the pain also stops, you may refrain from doing it again because of the pain it caused.

An example of this could be touching a hot stove or curling iron. Although it may hurt, the pain can serve a purpose by reminding you to be careful around hot objects so that you don't get hurt again.

Negative punishment is when the person doing the punishing removes a stimulus that the subject considers a privilege. For example, if you arrive at work an hour late, your boss may not pay you for that hour, or if you do not do your work properly, you may not get the promotion you want. The punishment can increase the chance that you come in on time and do your work properly because of your desire for pay and a promotion.

Positive punishment produces a stimulus that stops when the desired behavior is demonstrated and negative punishment removes a stimulus perceived as a privilege. Either punishment can be effective art reducing undesirable behavior.

Positive and negative reinforcement

There are two other forms of operant conditioning: positive and negative reinforcement. These are similar to the punishment theory but reversed. They can be used to reinforce a behavior rather than discourage a behavior.

  • Positive Reinforcement: Positive reinforcement consists of giving an individual something they like or want so that they are influenced to repeat the desired behavior. For example, if your partner cleaned the kitchen and made dinner, you could verbally express your appreciation or take care of their least favorite chore. This may influence them to repeat the behavior of cleaning the kitchen and making dinner in the future.
  • Negative Reinforcement: This consists of stopping something negative or unpleasant to encourage the individual to repeat the positive behavior. For example, you might stop an employee's supervision when shown that they can be trusted to do their job correctly. They may be more likely to do their job correctly in order to avoid supervision.

Is psychological punishment a healthy and effective practice?

You may wonder whether we should use punishment as a learning tool for our children or peers. Is it wise to attempt to enforce our desires on others by punishing them?

Punishment may have been the preferred teaching tool at home and school in the past. However, in the United States, punishment may be more frequently frowned upon today. Some experts believe that punishment and negative consequences can encourage bad behavior rather than reinforce good behavior. There has been quite a bit of research showing that positive reinforcement can be more effective than negative reinforcement or punishment. Many parents and schools may now be turning to methods like positive parenting, which can encourage good behavior while promoting children’s inherent worth and self-esteem.

is often remembered long after it takes place. While remembering a spanking for misbehaving at school may stop a child from misbehaving again, it may also lead to aggression because the child may think being aggressive is an effective way of handling challenging situations.

In obedience psychology, punishment may also lead to fear of the punisher. This can mean that obedience becomes the result of fear, rather than the child simply wanting to behave well. Even though you may believe that it could be good for your child to be afraid of the consequences of "being bad" at school, it may not be helpful if they are afraid of their teacher or going to school in general. This could cause your child not to want to go to school or to be frightened of authority figures such as teachers and police officers.

Some types of punishment are typically not useful in any context, such as becoming violent or abusive. Studies have shown that children who have been subject to abuse or violence can be more likely to be abusive as adults. Approximately one-third of those neglected or abused as a child may abuse or neglect their children. In addition, survivors of abuse can be more likely to have mental health disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders. Survivors can also be more susceptible to addiction disorders. Still, it can be important to note that many abused and neglected children can grow up to become excellent parents who may never abuse or mistreat their children.

Experiencing mental health concerns due to punishment?

Online therapy may help you cope with mental health concerns from punishment

If you’re living with mental health concerns stemming from punishment, you may wish to seek therapy so that you can work with a mental health professional to learn coping skills and gain insight into the way the punishment affected you. Traditional therapy may not be your preferred method of getting help, and if that’s the case for you, you may be interested in online therapy. With online therapy, you still get to connect with a licensed professional, but you can do so without leaving the house.

Often, punishment can negatively impact self-esteem. According to this study, online therapy can be effective in increasing self-compassion and happiness, as well as decreasing difficulties with emotion, depression, and stress.


The study of punishment in psychology and corresponding research in the field of Social Psychology (the study of individual and group behavior interactions) has revealed that long term effects of being punished can be reduced over time with appropriate treatment.

When a person takes action to affect another psychologically in order to get them to behave in a certain way, that can be considered psychological punishment. This type of punishment was frequently used in the past, but today, it may be considered more effective to use positive reinforcement to encourage desired behavior. Psychological punishment can sometimes lead to negative impacts on mental health. If you’ve experienced this personally, please know that help is available, and online therapy may provide the support and guidance you deserve.
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