What Is Vicarious Punishment And How Does It Work?

By William Drake|Updated February 2, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Wendy Boring-Bray, DBH, LPC

Have you ever stopped or tried to stop a behavior after seeing someone else experience negative consequences? This is known as vicarious punishment. People of all ages learn in this way. Though it isn't always intentional, sometimes it can have very harmful effects. The most important question is whether vicarious punishment should be used or avoided. To find an answer, you need to know more about what vicarious punishment is.

Confused About Vicarious Punishment And How It Works?

Components of Vicarious Punishment

Vicarious punishment is a type of social learning in which people do a behavior less often after they've seen someone else behave that way and experience negative consequences. Negative consequences can happen in a couple of ways. The model (the person from whom you learn by observing) may get hurt physically or emotionally in some way, or they may be prevented from getting positive or desired results. The observer (you, the person who is learning) sees the consequence that person underwent, so they avoid doing what the model did.

Who Is The Model?

The model is the person who displays a behavior that someone else adopts.

Who Is The Observer?

The observer is the person who sees the behavior and might choose different ones if they see the model experience negative consequences from that choice. They may choose the same behavior, if there are no negative consequences, because they've learned that the behavior is okay.

What Is Social Learning?

Social learning is a type of learning in which people learn in a social context through observing and mimicking the behavior of others. Social learning is a process that includes cognitive, social, and behavioral elements.

What Is Observational Learning?

Observational learning is the part of social learning wherein behavior is learned through observation. When you observe a behavior, you see how well it works. Then, you determine whether it's something worth mimicking or not.

Reinforcement vs. Punishment

There's some confusion about the meaning of negative reinforcement. To set the record straight, the difference between reinforcement and punishment is that reinforcement is done to increase a behavior, while punishment is done to decrease a behavior. This is true of both positive and negative reinforcement. With negative reinforcement, a stimulus that once caused avoidance is removed. As a result, the person no longer avoids doing the behavior, and the behavior increases. In punishment, the goal is to decrease the behavior. When the behavior happens, it's followed by a consequence they don't like. This causes the person to avoid the behavior in the future.

Positive And Negative Punishment

There are also two kinds of punishment: positive and negative. With positive punishment, the person acts out and they're punished by getting some consequence they don't want. They stop doing that behavior as a result. So in positive punishment, bad behavior gets a bad result.

Negative punishment is different. Instead of having a bad result, the person does not receive what they want or has something taken away. After finding the behavior failed to get them the desired outcome, they stop doing the behavior. In negative punishment, then, bad behavior fails to get the desired result. To highlight the difference between the two: in positive punishment, a child talks back to their parents and has to do extra chores. But in negative punishment, the child talks back to their parents and has their phone or video games taken away.

Examples Of Vicarious Punishment

Vicarious punishment is used in a variety of settings, both with children and adults. Here are some examples:

  1. A child talks in class during the teacher's lecture. The teacher reprimands the child harshly in front of the class. The rest of the class, having learned from the child's behavior and punishment, stays silent for the remainder of the lecture.
  2. A person is caught stealing and is taken to jail. Those who saw the person steal and receive punishment learn vicariously that stealing brings a negative consequence. If the vicarious punishment works, they won't steal in the future.
  3. A drug addict loses everything they own, spending it all to support their habit. The person's friend uses them as an example when telling their child not to use drugs. If this vicarious punishment works, the child doesn't use illicit drugs.
  4. A child misses curfew. Their parent wakes them up an hour earlier than usual and forces them to do difficult chores. Their siblings learn not to stay out late by watching what happened to their sibling.
  5. A call center worker keeps hanging up on disgruntled customers. Their coworkers are aware of this, and some of them have begun to follow suit. Management tells the first worker, in front of the other coworkers, that their pay will be reduced every time this happens. Management carries out this punishment in view of other coworkers. The coworkers stop hanging up on customers because they've seen what will happen if they do.
  6. A child hits a classmate. The teacher punishes the child by taking away recess privileges for the rest of the week. The other children, if they've learned from this, will hit each other less frequently.
  7. A military member disobeys the regulations and is given the punishment of confinement to quarters. Other soldiers see his fate and avoid disobeying the regulations themselves.
  8. A murderer is sentenced to death for his crimes. If those who are exposed to the facts of the crime and punishment for it learn vicariously from this, they will never commit murder. At least, that's the theory.

Problems With Vicarious Punishment

Vicarious punishment is used in many situations, either intentionally or unintentionally. It can work to change behavior in some cases. However, there are problems with it.

It's Just One Of Many Experiences

For one thing, it's just one experience out of all the experiences a person has. They may see that their friend is punished, but know that other friends have done the same thing and gotten off. They themselves may have already done the wrong thing and escaped any negative consequences.

People Think It Won't Happen To Them

People tend to think that they're less likely to be punished for the wrongful behavior than someone else is. This is especially true of adolescents who, because of their adolescent egocentrism, create a personal fable for themselves. Their personal fable may say that they're powerful, invincible, and unusual. While people may grow out of this egocentrism to a certain extent as they mature, many people continue to believe that they are less likely to experience negative consequences than others.

People Think It Won't Happen Again

The "Gambler's Fallacy" may come into play in any kind of punishment, including vicarious punishment. What happens is that someone is punished. The observers see that the wrong behavior came with negative consequences that specific time. However, they focus on the fact that it hasn't happened every time. So, they believe that they would have to be very unlucky for that punishment to happen again to them. Thus, like a gambler, they take the same risk over and over.

It Can Cause Unnecessary Fear

If someone is punished severely, others typically notice the punishment and might change their behavior. What about the observer who does not typically do that behavior? How do they react? One of the many reactions is that the observer becomes fearful, thinking that they may behave wrongly by mistake. The observer may avoid engaging in activities to avoid even the slightest possibility of punishment.

Is Vicarious Punishment The Most Helpful Option?

Vicarious punishment is one behavior modification technique that works in many situations. It's especially helpful when time is a critical factor or when the behavior is extremely dangerous. However, at other times, other forms of behavior modification can work as well, if not better.

  1. Reinforcing good behavior is ideal if no serious bad behaviors are happening.
  2. Punishment can work, but direct punishment tends to have a stronger effect than vicarious punishment does. Why? What happens directly to you is more important than what happens in your environment.

Online Therapy Can Help

If you're a parent and your child isn't responding to vicarious punishment, you may have a serious problem. Perhaps, they're physically hurting someone. Maybe, they're starting to drink alcohol or use drugs. Whatever the problem, there are strategies outside of vicarious punishment that you can try. You can talk to a licensed counselor.

If you are having trouble finding the right counselor or child psychologist in your area, you will likely have better luck online. Online counseling has routinely been shown to provide the same results as in-person treatment. As psychologist Professor Nicholas Joyce writes, “Research suggests … that online therapy works just as well as traditional face-to-face therapy. Studies, looking at outcomes for clients and the quality of their relationships with therapists, found them equal across telehealth and in-person conditions.”

If you have a busy schedule or don't think you have time for a visit to a therapist, look into BetterHelp. You can talk to our counselors on your schedule through BetterHelp. You'll be matched with a therapist most suited to help you with your situation. Online therapy is convenient, private, and affordable.

Confused About Vicarious Punishment And How It Works?

With the right help, you can begin to understand your child's behavior better and guide them in a more effective way to a better life path. Remember that vicarious punishment is one way to get your message across, but there are many other ways to help your child see the light! Below are two counselor reviews, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"I am THRILLED with Rachel and with BetterHelp! It is affordable, I am a single mom with 4 kids on a tight budget and a LOT of stress and this format makes it easy to get help. I LOVE that I can write my feelings to her whenever I am having them, not have to wait a week for the next session. She is very insightful and I am thankful!”

“In just three weeks of having Mary listen and support and encourage me through a difficult time, my self confidence and self assurance has really been boosted. I’m open to hearing if there may be another way for me to do things and it’s been a blessing to know that she validates my concerns and approach in the issue at hand. As a mom who is trying to do the right and best thing for my kids she has been a calm voice in the midst of turmoil.”


Vicarious punishment happens at work, schools, and within families. It is a natural part of social learning. Sometimes, it can be used incorrectly, have unintended consequences, or be ignored. BetterHelp can aid with strategies and solutions towards improving the problems at the root. If you want to live a more fulfilling life, take the first step today.

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