What Is Punishment Psychology, And Should You Use It?

By BetterHelp Editorial Team|Updated April 1, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Tanya Harell, LPC

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, reinforcement or punishment is utilized to make a certain behavior weaker or stronger. Whether positive or negative reinforcement is used depends on the subject and the type of behavior being targeted.

The Law Of Effect

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

The Law of Effect theory was 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 of punishment that produces a stimulus that causes 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 do not yell at them, increasing the chances that your child will stay out of the street in the future. Why? Your child will associate being in the street with being yelled at, and most kids will want to avoid that. 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 it again because it caused you pain.

An example of this is touching a hot stove or curling iron. Although it hurts at the moment, the pain serves a purpose by reminding you to be careful around hot objects so that you don't get hurt again in the future. Without pain, we'd never learn and would continue to be harmed.

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 of coming in on time and doing 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 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. They often work insofar as giving the abuser what they want because the person on the receiving end is filled with fear, shame, or guilt, even though none of the abuse is their fault. These methods of punishment should never be used as they do not teach the individual anything but fear and violence.

If you are experiencing any abuse or violence at home or elsewhere, you can anonymously call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.SAFE (7233) for advice and assistance.

Negative Punishment Psychology

Negative punishment can work by weakening or reducing a certain behavior. When you take away a privilege or something that the individual likes, it could cause the behavior to 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 or whatever else is important to them. Hopefully, your teen will not do whatever caused that punishment again because they do not want their phone or television privileges taken away. Like any other method, negative punishment isn't foolproof or guaranteed to work. It can also depend on the person receiving the punishment; some respond to it better than others, while others rebel even more.

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 give an individual 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 to get more dessert or beer.
  • Negative Reinforcement: This conditioning is done by stopping something negative or unpleasant to encourage the individual to repeat the positive behavior. For example, you can stop an employee's supervision when 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 supervision.

It may be hard to stay positive to discourage a behavior and negative when encouraging a behavior. However, thinking 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 continuing or adding something unpleasant to stop bad behavior. Removing something such as a restriction or an early curfew from your child because they have been extra well behaved is a form of negative reinforcement. Doing something unpleasant such as giving your child a spanking, is a form of positive punishment.

Positive Reinforcement Versus Negative Punishment

On the other hand, positive reinforcement involves adding something good to encourage behavior that you want to recur, while negative punishment takes something away to stop bad behavior. For example, buying your child ice cream for a 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? The punishment was the preferred teaching tool at home and school and worked among adults in the past. 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 positive reinforcement is much more effective than negative reinforcement or punishment. Many parents and schools are now turning to methods like positive parenting instead of raising and disciplining their children in a way that discourages bad behavior while promoting that child's inherent worth and self-esteem.

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 misbehaving again, it may also cause aggressive actions because the child thinks being aggressive is the way to handle challenging situations. It may also cause fear of the punisher, which is never a good thing. Obedience then becomes a result of fear rather than the child wanting to behave well on their merit. Even though you may think that it is good for your child to be afraid about "being bad" at school, it is not helpful that 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 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. Approximately one-third of those neglected or abused as a child will abuse or neglect their children. Also, abused people are more likely to have mental health disorders such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and anxiety disorders. Survivors are also more susceptible to addiction disorders such as drug, alcohol, sex, or gambling addiction. Of course, many abused and neglected children grow up to become great parents who give their children the opposite experience of what they had.

Depression, Anxiety, And Other Mental Health Disorders

More than 450 million people all over the world have some 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 class. Many people believe that mental health and addiction disorders only happen to young people or among those with low incomes when, in fact, these diagnoses are more common among young adults who are from middle to upper-class families. It does not matter who you are, your religion, skin color, or 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 mental health conditions, the most common include anxiety, depression, and addiction. The most common mental health disorder is anxiety disordeaffectingcts more than 18% of adults in the United States or 40 million people. The symptoms of an 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:

  • 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

(If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help right away. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 and is available to help 24/7.)

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% preferred BetterHelp to traditional in-person counseling.

BetterHelp has more than 14,000 licensed therapists 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. Please read what others have to say about their experience working with BetterHelp counselors.

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