What Is Punishment Psychology, And Should You Use It?

Updated February 01, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Tanya Harell

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We were all punished when we were younger at one time or another. However, it is how we are punished that can shape how we will behave in the future. Believe it or not, whether you got a spanking for hitting your sister or a pat on the back can decide what kind of person you will be. In operant conditioning, punishment isa change in surroundings after a certain behavior is shown that will prompt the subject to stop using that sort of behavior. Whether the punishment is positive or negative depends on the subject and the type of behavior you are trying to discontinue.

The Law Of Effect

Dr. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, or B.F. Skinner, was a psychologist who thought classical conditioning was too simple to be an accurate explanation of human behavior. Therefore, he decided to use the causes of action and consequence to determine why we do what we do. However, Skinner based his operant conditioning onDr. Edward Thorndike's Law of Effect.

The Law of Effect was a theory that satisfying responses cause an individual's actions to be repeated, and unwelcome responses cause these actions to occur less often. For example, if you inadvertently did something nice for someone and they praised you for it, you would be more likely to do it again, right? Dr. Skinner found three different operant responses that follow certain behaviors. These include:

  • Neutral responses are those that do not decrease or increase the probability of the behavior happening again.
  • Reinforcement is a response that increases the chances of a certain behavior happening again. They may either be negative or positive.
  • Punishments are responses that lessen the chances that the behavior will happen again because it weakens the behavior.

Positive Punishment Versus Negative Punishment Psychology

Positive punishment is a type ofpunishment that produces a stimulus that causes a behavior or activity to stop. For example, let’s sayyour child runs into the street and you yell at them. When your child is no longer in the street, you do not yell at them, increasing the chances that your child will stay out of the street in the future. Even pain can be a positive punishment: when you do something that causes pain and then stop doing it ,and the pain also stops, you will refrain from doing itagain because it caused you pain.

Negative punishment is when the person doing the punishing removes some kind of stimulus that the subject considers a privilege. For example, if you come in late for work, your boss may take some of your pay away, or if you do not do your work properly, you may not get the promotion you want. The punishment increases the chances that you will come in on time and do your work the way you are supposed to, so you will get your pay and possibly receive that promotion.

Punishment Psychology Definition

Psychological punishment can include simple things such as ignoring someone, yelling at someone, and even intimidating or nagging them to do or not do something. Other forms of psychological punishment that are traumatic include verbal abuse, swearing, violent anger, and physical abuse. These should never be used as they do not teach the individual anything but fear and violence.

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Negative Punishment Psychology

A negative punishment weakens the behavior. When you take away a privilege or something that the individual likes, the behavior will eventually lessen or stop. For example, if your teenager does something you do not want them to, you can take away their cell phone or television privileges. Your teen will likely not do whatever caused that punishmentagain because they do not want their phone or television privileges taken away.

Positive And Negative Reinforcement

There are also two other forms of operant conditioning called reinforcement, which include positive and negative reinforcement. These are similar to the punishment theory but reversed. They are used to reinforce a behavior rather than discourage a behavior.

  • Positive Reinforcement: With positive reinforcement, you giveanindividual something they like or want to get them to repeat the behavior. For example, if your husband cleaned the kitchen and made dinner, you could give him an extra special dessert or a six-pack of beer. He will be more likely to clean the kitchen and make dinner again so that he can get more dessert or beer.
  • Negative Reinforcement: This type of conditioning is done by stopping something negative or unpleasant to encourage the individual to repeat the positive behavior. For example, you can stop anemployee's supervision when they have shown that they can be trusted to do their job correctly. They will be more likely to do their job right, so they do not have to have supervision.

It may be hard to staypositive to discourage a behavior and negative when encouraging a behavior. However, thinking about the fact that positive and negative are not always used to mean good and bad may be helpful. If these seem similar to the punishment behaviors, that is because they are. However,there are simple differences between them.

Negative Reinforcement Versus Positive Punishment

Negative reinforcement is the act of removing or stopping something unpleasant, while positive punishment is the act of continuing or adding something that is unpleasant to stop bad behavior. Removing something such as a restriction or an early curfew from your child because they have been extra well behavedis a form of negative reinforcement. Doing something unpleasant such as giving your child a spanking, is a form of positive punishment.

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Positive Reinforcement Versus Negative Punishment

On the other hand, positive reinforcement involves adding something good to encourage a behavior that you want to recur, while negative punishment is taking something away to stop bad behavior. For example, buying your child ice cream for being good while shopping is positive reinforcement, while negative punishment takes away your child's bicycle for riding in the street.

Is Punishment Psychology A Good Practice?

So, should we use punishment as a learning tool for our children or peers? Is it good to enforce our wishes on others by punishing them? In the past, punishment was the preferred tool of teaching both at home and school as well as at work amongadults. In fact, in some cases, children are still spanked at school for being bad. However, in the United States, this is becoming more and more frowned upon. The reason is that experts believe punishment and negative consequences are doing more to encourage bad behavior than they are to encourage good behavior. There has been quite a bit of research proving that using positive reinforcement is much more effective than negative reinforcement or punishment.

The thing about punishment is that it is likely to be remembered.While remembering a spanking for misbehaving at school may stop a child from doing misbehavingat school again, it may also cause aggressive actions because the child thinks being aggressive is the way to handlechallenging situations. It may also cause fear of the punisher, which is never a good thing. Even though you may think that it is good for your child to be afraid about “being bad”atschool, it is not helpfulthat they are afraid of their teacher or going to school in general. This can 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 not useful in any manner, such as blowing up or becoming violent or abusive. Studies have shown that children who have been subject to abuse or violence are more likely to be abusive as adults. In fact, of those who are neglected or abused as a child, approximately one-third of them will abuse or neglect their children. Also, those who are abused are more likely to have mental health disorders such as depression, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders. Survivorsare also more susceptible to addiction disorders such as drug, alcohol, sex, or gambling addiction.

Depression, Anxiety, And Other Mental Health Disorders

More than 450 million people all over the world have some type of mental health disorder. Whether you experienced abuse or not, mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and addiction can affect anyone, no matter gender, age, or status. Many people believe that mental health and addiction disorders only happen to young people or among those with lowincomes when, in fact, these diagnoses aremore common amongyoung adults who are from middle to upper-class families. It does not matter who you are, nor your religion, skin color, or even your sexual preference; you can be affected by one of these conditions. So, how do you know if you are depressed or have anxiety or an addiction disorder?

Symptoms Of Mental Health Conditions

While there are many different types of mental health conditions, the most common include anxiety, depression, and addiction. In fact, the most common mental health disorder is anxiety disorder, which affects more than 18% of adults in the United States, or 40 million people. The symptoms of anxiety disorder include:

  • Constant worry about certain things or everything in general
  • Overwhelming stress over things you cannot control
  • Isolating yourself
  • Fast heart rate
  • Racing thoughts
  • Feeling dizzy or faint
  • Avoiding certain people or places
  • Use of alcohol or drugs to calm down
  • Inability to maintain a relationship
  • Anxiety that affects your daily activities such as work and school
  • Feeling like you are going crazy or are out of control

Although there are several types of depression, the most common symptoms of depression include:

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  • Feeling sad or empty for more than two weeks
  • Avoiding friends and family
  • Constant fatigue
  • Sleeping more or less than usual
  • Eating more or less than usual
  • Lack of concentration
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Crying for no apparent reason
  • Gaining or losing weight
  • Disinterest in activities you usually enjoy
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

The signs of addiction include:

  • Hiding your substance use from others
  • Craving the substance when not using
  • Continuing the use even though it is causing problems at home or work
  • Trying to cut down or stop unsuccessfully
  • The lack of desire to stop
  • Needing more of the substance to achieve the same level of satisfaction
  • Withdrawal symptoms when not using the substance

If you believe that you or someone you care about has one of these or another mental health condition, you should talk to a professional. Online therapy is growing in popularity, and research indicates it is as effective as face-to-face counseling. This study from the Berkeley Well-Being Institute found that digital therapy reduced depression symptoms in 70% of participants, and 94% of participants preferred BetterHelp to traditional in-person counseling.

BetterHelp has more than14,000licensed therapists licensed ready to help you without the need to make an appointment or leave the house.From video conferencing to phone calls to written communications, you can choose how you’d like to connect with your therapist. Read what others have to say about their experience working with BetterHelp counselors.

“As a counsellor Tykesia is very easy to talk to and provides clear, logical, clinical approach to my issues that calms my emotional condition while also showing efforts to understand my psychological and emotional point of view.”

“Lindsay makes me feel heard and reinforces positive self-talk. She motivates me to be better and helps me find motivation in my daily life. I recommend her highly.”


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