People behave differently depending on the situation. We try to adapt our behaviour to the situations we live in, so that it is adaptive in the natural and social environment. However, in some cases, different behaviours are carried out that are unadaptive to us , do not adapt or allow a good coexistence or make it difficult to relate to others.

Sometimes it may be necessary to make a modification of these behaviors. Two of the most basic procedures for modifying behavior, especially for decreasing its frequency, are positive punishment and negative punishment . How do they work?

Punishment as a behavior modification technique

Punishment is a type of behaviour modification technique based on behaviourism, specifically on operant conditioning, which is based on the fact that the performance of a behaviour and its frequency is influenced by the consequences of that behaviour.

If a behaviour has as a consequence the administration of some type of reinforcer desired or the avoidance or withdrawal of an aversive stimulus the behaviour will become more frequent, while if instead the consequence is the appearance of aversive stimulation or the withdrawal of reinforcing stimuli the behaviour will tend to decrease.

In the case of punishment, we would be facing a type of procedure by means of which it is intended to influence the frequency of a behaviour in order to provoke a decrease in it , or its complete elimination.

There are two types of punishment depending on whether they act through the administration of aversive stimuli or the elimination of positive stimulation: positive punishment and negative punishment respectively. In both cases the punishment should be applied in a contingent manner to the behaviour to be reduced , so that it can be considered a consequence of the action.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is that in which an aversive stimulus is applied to the subject when faced with the performance of a certain behaviour, making the stimulus a consequence of its performance, so that the individual decreases the frequency or stops performing the behaviour in question.

Thus, the basic mechanism of positive punishment is to present an unpleasant stimulus every time the person does the unwanted behavior. It is recommended that stimuli be used consistently, so that the behavior is always followed by the consequence. Behavior modification occurs as a way for the subject to avoid or escape aversive stimulation .

Positive punishment is a procedure based on various techniques, such as the set of aversive therapies (electric, olfactory, taste, tactile, auditory, chemical or covert), satiation as a mass practice in different addictive disorders, overcorrection or facial screen.

Negative Punishment

The basic functioning of negative punishment is based on the withdrawal of a desired and reinforcing stimulus by the subject when faced with the performance of a specific behaviour, so that the subject decreases its frequency in order to prevent such loss.

In short, negative punishment removes something that the person wants every time he does the unwanted behavior. In this sense, it must be taken into account that the stimulus to withdraw is significant for the person , otherwise it would have no effect.

As procedures based on negative punishment, techniques such as time out, response cost, and is part of others such as the contingency contract, stand out.

Uses and considerations regarding the effectiveness of these techniques

Both positive and negative punishment have been applied in various contexts. They are applied in clinical practice, education , the business world or even at a legal level (legal sanctions can be considered positive or negative punishments).

Both types of punishment are procedures that are successful in decreasing or even extinguishing behaviors fairly quickly. If their application is chosen, must be executed consistently and contingently to the conduct and in a manner proportional to the seriousness of the conduct.

However, it should be borne in mind that the change they produce is usually only superficial and based on fear of punishment, not generating a real change in attitudes in most cases.

In addition, it can cause fear to become widespread, leading to fear of the person or institution applying the punishment as well as resentment towards it . The relationship with the person who is administering the punishment can therefore become substantially worse, in the worst case scenario. The feeling of control and self-esteem also worsens if the causes of the punishment or what to do to act correctly are not understood.

Bibliographic references:

  • Almond tree, M.T. (2012). Psychotherapies. Manual CEDE de Preparación PIR, 06.
  • Caballo, V. (1991). Manual of Therapy and Behavior Modification Techniques. Siglo XXI. Madrid.
  • Domjan, M. & Burkhard, B. (1990). Principles of learning and behavior. Discussion. Madrid.
  • Labrador F.J.; Cruzado F. J. & López, M. (2005). Manual of behaviour modification and therapy techniques. Pirámide: Madrid.