Positive punishment refers to giving an undesirable consequence after an unwanted behavior. This strategy aims to stop the behavior from happening again, but studies suggest that it may cause psychological and behavioral issues in the long term.

Behavior modification is an intervention that aims to reduce or eliminate unwanted behaviors. It has its roots in B. F. Skinner’s operant conditioning theory.

Positive punishment is one of the four consequences in operant conditioning that lead to the desired behavior.

This article explores positive punishment, including its roots, risks, and criticisms. It also provides several examples of positive punishment in daily life.

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Positive punishment is a behavior modification technique. It involves adding an adverse outcome after an unwanted behavior to decrease the chance that a person engages in the behavior again.

In this instance, the term “positive” does not mean something good or desirable. Instead, it refers to the action of adding a consequence. In positive punishment, the consequence should be undesirable enough to discourage the person from repeating the behavior.

An example is a teacher scolding a student for texting in class. The teacher is using an undesirable consequence (the reprimand) to try to stop the unwanted behavior (texting in class).

Psychologist B.F. Skinner introduced this theory.

Learn more about behavioral disorders in children.

B.F. Skinner was an American psychologist who expanded the field of behaviorism, which John Watson started. Behaviorism is a theory of learning that suggests that environmental events control all behavior.

Skinner’s work on operant conditioning is the foundation of behavior modification.

The premise of operant conditioning is that consequences shape behavior. These consequences include rewards, or reinforcements, and punishments.

Reinforcements, whether positive or negative, aim to increase the chance that a behavior happens again. Punishments are aversive and aim to prevent a behavior from happening again.

A person tends to repeat a rewarded action, and it becomes strengthened. This is because they want to receive the desired outcome again.

However, when a behavior does not lead to a reward or instead leads to a punishment, the behavior tends to die out, or become weakened, because a person wants to avoid the unwanted outcome associated with the behavior.

Following these concepts, operant conditioning has four ways of modifying or influencing behavior:

Operant conditioning termReinforcementPunishment
positiveadding a desirable stimulus to encourage a behavioradding an undesirable stimulus to discourage a behavior
negativeremoving or reducing an undesirable stimulus to encourage a behaviorremoving or reducing a pleasant stimulus to discourage a behavior

All actions lead to results and consequences. Our daily lives feature many examples of positive punishments. In some cases, a person may give someone a punishment purposefully, while in others, consequences of a behavior occur naturally.

  1. A toddler touches a hot object and gets burned.
  2. A child eats too many sweets and gets a toothache.
  3. A person stays up very late and runs late for work the next day, and their boss reprimands them.
  4. A person drives while drunk and gets into a car accident.
  5. A toddler refuses to wear a jacket and catches a cold.
  6. A student skips class, misses a quiz, and gets a failing grade.
  7. A toddler attempts to climb furniture and falls, leading to a bump.
  8. A child pushes a playmate, and then their parent scolds them.
  9. A child throws all their toys, and then their parent asks them to clean up.
  10. A driver gets a ticket for speeding on the highway.
  11. A student listens to music with their earphones during school, and then a teacher scolds them for violating school rules.
  12. A teacher who finds a student not following instructions asks the student to repeat the test or do extra work.

Corporal, or physical, punishments, especially spanking, are common forms of positive punishment.

However, numerous studies have questioned their effectiveness as a form of discipline for children, arguing that they may produce adverse psychological effects and behavioral issues.

Punishment may lead children to develop psychological problems

Children may see their parents resort to punishment and hitting when they become angry. In turn, they may learn to act out when they become frustrated or angry

A 2015 review noted an association between anxiety sensitivity and corporal punishment. Anxiety sensitivity is a risk factor for developing anxiety disorders.

Similarly, a 2017 study found a strong association among maternal corporal punishment, the community’s efforts to improve their neighborhood (neighborhood collective efficacy), and increased behavior problems in early childhood.

However, a 2015 study found that good parenting has a moderating effect on the association between corporal punishment and children’s behavioral problems.

Learn more about recognizing child abuse.

Punishment may affect young children’s brain development

A 2018 review found that harsh corporal punishment harms a child’s physical, emotional, and psychological development.

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It also found that children exposed to long-term harsh corporal punishment had reduced gray matter volume in some brain regions. These brain regions have a link to addiction, depression, and suicidal behavior. One affected area of the brain also plays a critical role in social cognition and emotional development.

Learn more about suicidal tendencies here.

A 2022 review found similar results, with 94% of the reviewed studies showing significant associations between maternal spanking and corporal punishment and the deterioration of child behavior and development at the same time of the punishment or later in life.

Punishment may teach fear

A child may fear the act of punishment, such as hitting or spanking. They may also become fearful of the person delivering the punishment.

Receiving corporal punishment in school may also affect children’s learning by causing them to avoid going to school.

Learn more about how harsh parenting may harm a child’s education.

Punishment may lead to aggression in children

Positive punishment does not always stop bad behavior — it may only suppress the behavior. Children may behave and obey their parents but act differently when their parents are not around.

Research from 2017 suggests a link between authoritarian mothers and aggression in children. A 2018 study noted a positive association between mothers spanking male children at age 1 and those children displaying bullying behavior by age 3.

Moreover, Murray Straus, the author of the book Beating the Devil out of Them, noted that children who receiving spankings are 2–6 times more likely to:

  • be physically aggressive
  • be juvenile delinquents
  • be physically violent to their spouses
  • have sadomasochistic tendencies
  • have depression

The goal of any form of punishment is to stop or discourage a certain behavior. In behavior modification, punishment may be positive or negative.

The use of the terms “positive” and “negative” follows the mathematical functions of these terms. “Positive” refers to presenting, or “adding,” an outcome, while “negative” refers to the removal of one.

Positive punishment involves adding an aversive stimulus after an unwanted behavior to discourage a person from repeating the behavior. Spanking and chores are examples of this.

On the other hand, negative punishment involves the removal of something desirable. A teacher not allowing a student to enjoy recess or playtime can be an example.

Another example is the use of a swear jar, for which a child needs to put a dollar in the jar every time they use a swear word. Removing something desired — their own money — can help them become more mindful of their words.

One concept that people commonly confuse with negative punishment is negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement involves the removal of a stimulus to increase a behavior.

For example, if a parent continuously nags their child to make their bed, the child performs the chore to stop the nagging.

Another example of this type of reinforcement is removing or delaying a teen’s curfew if they consistently abide by their current curfew. The early curfew is the unpleasant stimulus, and following the house rules is the desired behavior.

The term “positive” implies adding something. Positive punishment and positive reinforcement are similar in that both involve adding something after a behavior.

In positive punishment, adding an undesirable consequence aims to discourage a person from engaging in an undesirable behavior again. For example, a parent reprimands a child for stealing money.

Meanwhile, the goal of positive reinforcement is to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. For example, star stamps in preschool encourage children to participate and listen to their teachers.

A 2022 article notes that positive reinforcement works better and more quickly than punishment methods to establish good behavioral habits in children.

The authors add that reinforcement and punishment can work together as part of a behavioral plan but that parents should try to reward good behavior to shift away from solely giving out punishments.

Learn more about how habits form.

Teachers and school authorities often use positive punishment in the classroom.

Examples include:

  • giving extra schoolwork or chores to misbehaving students
  • sending a student to the principal’s office or detention
  • reprimanding or scolding the student

A 2021 study suggests that rewards and punishments can positively affect a student’s performance and motivation when people use them wisely.

In many schools, teachers and staff use shaming as an alternative to corporal punishment. Some school districts have used shaming to force children to pay their meal bills by listing the names of students with outstanding balances.

In 2019, United States legislators introduced a bill to ban the stigmatization of children who cannot pay for school meals.

When educators shame students, they leverage the fear of isolation and rejection to motivate the students to change. However, this may push students further into isolation and alienation.

Positive punishment is a common behavior modification practice. Some consequences occur naturally, while people use other consequences intentionally to prevent a person from repeating a behavior.

While positive punishment can be effective in the short term, it does not offer a lasting solution to improve a person’s behavior.

People who are looking to improve a person’s behavior may want to explore other behavior modification techniques that have more evidence of effectiveness, such as positive reinforcement.