The Difference Between Positive and Negative Punishment

Punishment is used to help decrease the probability that a specific undesired behavior will occur with the delivery of a consequence immediately after the undesired response/behavior is exhibited. When people hear that punishment procedures are being used, they typically think that girl in cornersomething wrong or harmful is being done but that is not necessarily the case. The use of punishment procedures have been used with both typical and atypical developing children, teenagers, elderly persons, animals, and people exhibiting different psychological disorders. There are two types of punishment: positive and negative, and it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two. Below are some examples to help clear up the confusion.

What is Positive Punishment:

Positive punishment works by presenting a negative consequence after an undesired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior less likely to happen in the future. The following are some examples of positive punishment:

  • A child picks his nose during class and the teacher reprimands him in front of his classmates.
  • A child wears his favorite hat to church or at dinner, his parents scold him for wearing it and make him remove the hat.
  • During a meeting or while in class, your cell phone starts ringing, you are lectured on why it is not okay to have your phone on.

What is Negative Punishment:

Negative punishment happens when a certain desired stimulus/item is removed after a particular undesired behavior is exhibited, resulting in the behavior happening less often in the future. The following are some examples of negative punishment:

  • For a child that really enjoys a specific class, such as gym or music classes at school, negative punishment can happen if they are removed from that class and sent to the principal’s office because they were acting out/misbehaving.
  • If a child does not follow directions or acts inappropriately, he loses a token for good behavior that can later be cashed in for a prize.
  • Siblings get in a fight over who gets to go first in a game or who gets to play with a new toy, the parent takes the game/toy away.

When thinking about punishment, always remember that the end result is to try to decrease the undesired behavior. For positive punishment, try to think of it as adding a negative consequence after an undesired behavior is emitted to decrease future responses. As for negative punishment, try to think of it as taking away a certain desired item after the undesired behavior happens in order to decrease future responses.






 

Katie Sadowski

Katie Sadowski, MS, BCBA, is a board certified behavior analyst. She graduated from Southern Illinois University – Carbondale with a Master of Science in Applied Behavior Analysis Therapy and a Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Services. Throughout her college career, she worked with many different populations in several different settings. Katie has experience working with children and adolescents with autism and developmental disabilities, individuals with traumatic brain injuries, as well as elders with dementia and Alzheimer’s in different settings like day camps, school settings, residential placements, and inpatient hospitals.

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8 replies
  1. Healthy Family says:

    Thanks for sharing. Some kids react more positively to one style than the other. I think it is also important that parents and teachers take the time to talk about the behavior and the reason for the punishment after the initial period of behavior and subsequent positive/negative consequence has ended. I usually wait an hour or so–when they are calm and ready to talk/listen– and then I talk with my child about why they behaved that way. I then offer problem solving strategies to help them make better decisions the next time if it suits the situation. This has been really eye opening for me on countless occasions and with each of our three boys. Sometimes we punish when the child’s intent is far from what we originally construed as punishable.

    Reply
  2. Kent Vancleave says:

    The definition of positive punishment is subtly wrong. It states, “…presenting a negative consequence after an undesired behavior is exhibited…” Seems to me that administering a spanking is presenting a negative consequence, but so is taking away one’s cell phone.

    Reply
  3. Katie S says:

    Hi Kent,

    I am sorry for any confusion but I hope this explanation helps. Please let me know if you have any other questions.

    Positive punishment works by presenting a negative consequence after an undesired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior less likely to happen in the future.
    • Spanking a child would be consider positive punishment. After the child acts out or does something wrong (undesired behavior), the caregiver spanks (adds a negative consequence) the child, this makes the behavior less likely to happen.

    In regards to the cell phone example, I did not say the phone was taken away, so in this example it would be positive punishment.
    • During a meeting or while in class, your cell phone starts ringing (the undesired behavior/situation), you are lectured (adding a negative consequence) on why it is not okay to have your phone on.

    If the cell phone was taken away then it would be negative punishment.
    Negative punishment happens when a certain desired stimulus/item is removed after a particular undesired behavior is exhibited, resulting in the behavior happening less often in the future.
    • During a meeting or while in class, your cell phone starts ringing (the undesired behavior/situation), the speaker takes your phone away (certain desired stimulus/item taken away).

    Thank you,
    Katie

    Reply
  4. Tjtinaj says:

    @ Kent – In behaviourism positive and negative dont mean good and bad.
    Positive means +
    Negative means –

    Think of it as positive (+) – positive always refers to adding something, in this case u are adding in a spank.

    think of negative (-) – negative always refers to taking away something, in this case taking away a cell phone

    Reply
  5. Kent Van Cleave says:

    If I take away your cell phone because you were texting in class, that is a negative consequence. It is also a removal, so it is negative punishment. Positive punishment involves ADDING something. “In positive punishment, an aversive stimulus is added following the target behavior, making it less likely that the behavior will be repeated.”

    Reply
  6. lisa says:

    thanks for sharing this good article.Currently, I do some research regarding positive punishment and finally your article gave a clear explanation about positive and negative punishment. However, I need some favor, can you give an explaination about Performance-Contingent
    -Punishment? tq katie.

    Reply
  7. Vivien Cooksley says:

    One example given for positive punishment is:

    “A child picks his nose during class and the teacher reprimands him in front of his classmates.”

    This is only true if the child on future occasions no longer picks his nose – or if the behavior is at-least diminished if frequency. I feel that mentioning the consequence is a very important part of describing operant conditioning because it IS a three part contingency.

    Thanks for the nice examples!

    Reply

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