What Is Vicarious Punishment And How Does It Work?

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated April 30, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Have you ever stopped or tried to stop a behavior of yours after witnessing someone else experience the negative consequences of it? This is known as vicarious punishment, a concept from social learning theory. People of all ages, from students in the classroom to a new employee at work, can learn in this way. When deciding whether vicarious punishment should be used or avoided, it’s important to explore its benefits as well as its potentially harmful consequences. Through vicarious learning, individuals develop empathy and understanding by observing others' experiences. Though it isn't always intentional, sometimes vicarious punishment can have detrimental effects on a person.

Here, we’ll be discussing vicarious punishment in more depth and exploring how it works.

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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 same way and experience negative consequences as a result. Someone can receive negative consequences in a couple of ways.

These are the two ways in which vicarious punishment works:
  1. 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.

  2. The observer (you, the person who is learning) sees the consequences that person underwent, and so 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, or even beneficial. 

What is social learning?

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

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 versus punishment

There's some confusion about the definition of negative reinforcement. The difference between reinforcement and punishment, two central principles in education and behavior theory, is that reinforcement aims to increase a behavior, while punishment seeks to decrease it. This is true of both positive and negative reinforcement. With negative reinforcement, a perceived aversive stimulus that once caused avoidance is removed. As a result, the student or individual 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, such as a lesson or reprimand. 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, which can affect their future behavior. 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. Other students may observe this, and similarly, they may adjust their behavior to avoid the same consequence. After finding the behavior failed to get them the desired outcome, they stop engaging in the behavior. With 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 at school and must do extra chores. In negative punishment, the child talks back to their parents and has their phone 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 (or are less likely to) steal in the future.
  3. Someone with an addiction loses everything they own, spending it all to support their addiction. 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 their curfew. Their parent wakes them up an hour earlier than usual and has them do difficult chores. Their siblings learn not to stay out late by watching what happened to this sibling.
  5. A call center worker is so stressed due to being a glutton for punishment. She 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 soldier disobeys rules and is given the punishment of confinement to quarters. Other soldiers see their fate and avoid disobeying the rules themselves.

Problems with vicarious punishment

Vicarious punishment can be used in many situations, either intentionally or unintentionally. Although it can work to change behavior at times, there are some potential problems with it. These could include: 

  • It's just one of many experiences: A situation involving vicarious punishment is often just one encounter out of all the experiences a person has. For example, someone may see their role models punished but know that other groups have done the same thing without consequences. They themselves may have already done the wrong act and escaped any backlash, so they continue the behavior.
  • People think it won’t happen to them: People tend to think that they're less likely to be punished for wrongful behavior than someone else is. This is especially true of adolescents who, because of their development stage of 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 idea of the "Gambler's Fallacy" may come into play with any kind of punishment, including vicarious punishment. What happens is that when someone is punished, the observers see that the wrong behavior came with negative consequences at 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 to avoid receiving the same consequences. What about the observer who does not typically participate in 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 altogether 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, drawing from the history of its effectiveness. 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 positive 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 often more impactful than what happens in your environment.
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Vicarious punishment is a type of social learning that can happen almost anywhere at any time, and it relies on direct experience. Though it may keep people safer and out of harm's way, it can also be used incorrectly, have unintended consequences, or be ignored. Learning is often done by trial and error; even if vicarious punishment doesn’t work, there are plenty of other ways to get your message across through different strategies and by using the right words. If you’re struggling with decision-making, parenting techniques, or something else entirely, online therapy can help you engage with new ideas and solutions for improving the root problem, even when facing severe challenges.
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