Students often find it difficult to understand (a) how reinforcement and punishment work in practice, and (b) how to distinguish these two concepts from other learning concepts. Therefore, in this section, you’ll learn about:
- different ways to reinforce and punish;
- how to distinguish punishment from extinction and negative reinforcement.
As you learned in Section 4-16, a reinforcement is any stimulus that strengthens the operant response it follows. But what kinds of events are reinforcing? It should be obvious that presenting a stimulus that a person likes would reinforce responses that led to the pleasant experience. If a child sees a cookie, for instance, and asks, “may I please have the cookie?,” and you praise her for using the word “please” while giving her the cookie, she has been reinforced for using the word “please.” Or let’s say that one of your instructors asks a question to which you know the answer, and you blurt it out without even thinking. The instructor smiles and says, “Great answer!” It is likely that your question-answering behavior has been strengthened: you are more likely to answer such questions in the future (see Figure 1). This type of reinforcement is called positive reinforcement, and is defined as a stimulus that strengthens an operant response when it is presented after the response.
The word “positive” in positive reinforcement refers to the fact that the stimulus is presented after the operant response rather than removed after the operant response. It does not mean that the stimulus necessarily was something that the person found to be pleasant, although many positive reinforcements are, in fact, pleasant (or, at least, they are not unpleasant). Sometimes, however, a positively reinforcing stimulus is experienced as unpleasant. For example, when a pimple is just beginning to develop, perhaps even before a bump has appeared, a person may find the “proto-pimple” by pressing his finger on the spot and experiencing mild pain. He may press the spot again and again in order to feel the mild pain. In this case, the mild pain is a positive reinforcement because it strengthened the operant response (see Figure 2).
No one would claim that pain is a pleasant experience, at least not unless they were suffering from certain mental disorders. Thus, even for normal people, unpleasant stimuli may, at times, be positively reinforcing.
You can see a real-world example of positive reinforcement here:
What behavior is being reinforced? What is the discriminative stimulus?
Let’s say that a very irritating sound (a fingernail scratching a chalkboard) is presented to you through earphones and, in order to stop the sound for 10 seconds, you must press a button. It is very likely that you would quickly learn to press the button whenever the sound began. In this case, the operant response of pressing the button is strengthened by removing a stimulus (the irritating sound) after the operant response is performed (see Figure 3). This type of reinforcement is called negative reinforcement, and is defined as a stimulus that strengthens an operant response when it is taken away after the response.
To look at another example of negative reinforcement, think of a time when you hadn’t studied much for a test. Perhaps you were very anxious on the day of the test because you expected that you would fail the test. What did you do? Perhaps you called the instructor and told her that your car wouldn’t start (even though there was nothing wrong with it) and that you wouldn’t be able to make it to class to take the test. To your surprise, the instructor told you not to worry — that you could take the test the next day. After ending the phone call, you felt relieved (that is, you experienced anxiety reduction). Your “excuse-making behavior” was negatively reinforced by reducing your negative emotional state: your feelings of anxiety were taken away after you performed the operant response (see Figure 4).
Anxiety reduction is an important negative reinforcer of addictive behaviors. The taking of an addictive drug may be followed not only by pleasure (a positive reinforcement), it also may be followed by decreases in negative emotional states, such as anxiety. Thus, learning theories of addictive behaviors emphasize the importance of negative reinforcement.
As you’ve already learned, a reinforcement is a stimulus that strengthens the operant response it follows. A punishment, on the other hand, is a stimulus that weakens the operant response it follows. And just as there are positive and negative reinforcements, there also are positive and negative punishments.
In the discussion of positive reinforcement above, we used the example of a mildly painful spot on the face caused by a pimple that was just beginning to develop. In that example, the mild pain was positively reinforcing because the operant response of touching the spot increased in frequency over time. But let’s assume now that the painful spot is not a developing pimple but something much more serious that, when touched, causes severe pain that shoots across the face. In this case, the operant response of touching the spot will be punished by the severe pain that occurs immediately after a finger begins to touch the spot. It is likely that the person will remove her finger very quickly and will refrain from touching the spot again until she can see a doctor. This type of punishment is called positive punishment, and is defined as a stimulus that weakens an operant response when it is presented after the response (see Figure 5).
As already stated above in the discussion of positive reinforcement, the word “positive” in positive punishment refers to the fact that the stimulus is presented after the operant response rather than removed after the response. It should be obvious that, in this case, the word “positive” does not mean that the stimulus was something that the person enjoyed: it is hard to imagine that anyone, even those suffering from sexual masochism, would find severe pain to be enjoyable.
Let’s say that a teenager has a very messy bedroom, with clothes and other objects thrown all around, and his mother wants him to clean it up. If she asks him to clean the room and he answers, “no, it’s my bedroom and I like the way it looks!” she probably will not like this answer. If she is determined to get him to clean his room, she might use a positive reinforcement, such as offering him money if he does as she asks. But she also might decide to punish him for refusing to clean his room. Positive punishment would be something like yelling at him after he says, “no.” On the other hand, many parents decide to punish by taking away something that the child or adolescent likes. In this case, the mother might take away his cell phone so that it is harder for him to talk to and text his friends. The mother is trying to weaken the operant response of saying, “no” (and thereby refusing to clean his room) by removing a stimulus (the phone) that is very important to him. This type of punishment is called negative punishment, and is defined as a stimulus that weakens an operant response when it is taken away after the response (See Figure 6).
As already stated, negative punishment often is used to modify children’s behavior but it also is used in many everyday situations involving adults, such as in work situation when, for example, an employee is “docked” whenever she shows up late to work: the reduction of money in her paycheck punishes the operant response of showing up late.
Punishment Versus Extinction
With respect to operant conditioning, extinction is defined as the decline of the operant response to the discriminative stimulus in the absence of reinforcement. In other words, the reinforcement is removed after an operant response is acquired. Both punishment and extinction reduce the strength of (weaken) operant responses, but they do so in different ways. In order to understand the distinction, let’s look at an example.
While driving, you’ve probably encountered a situation in which, regardless of your speed, the person behind you wants to go even faster. He may have communicated this to you by driving a couple of feet behind your car — that is, by tailgating. Tailgating is a voluntary behavior and, hence, tailgating represents an operant response. Because he now is tailgating you, it seems very likely that the man was reinforced for tailgating in the past: when he tailgated (the operant response), many people probably sped up or pulled over (reinforcements) to let him pass. The operant response of tailgating is triggered by a slower-driving car in the lane immediately ahead of the man and, therefore, the sight of a slower-driving car is the discriminative stimulus (see Figure 7).
Given that tailgating is learned, it should be possible to unlearn the behavior. If you wanted to discourage the man from tailgating, what could you do? There are two things you could do:
- extinguish the operant response;
- punish the operant response.
The slower way probably is extinction. If speeding up (of the car in front) was the reinforcement for tailgating in the past, extinction would involve not speeding up when the man tailgates (that is, not reinforcing the behavior). If every person who might be tailgated by this man agreed not to speed up when he did so, then his tailgating eventually would extinguish. But extinction requires many trials — many presentations of the discriminative stimulus (a slower car in front) followed by no reinforcement (not speeding up) of the operant response (tailgating). Thus, extinction probably is not a practical solution: unless you live in a very small town, you won’t be able to contact all the people who might be tailgated by this man and persuade them not to speed up if he does so. Furthermore, extinction won’t stop him from tailgating you right now.
It seems, therefore, that punishing the operant response is the only course of action. If the reinforcement is speeding up when he tailgates, then one possible positive punishment would be stepping on the brakes, which also would cause your brake lights to turn on, thereby causing the tailgater to step on his brakes. (A question to ponder: what would a negative punishment be?) If your goal is to get him to stop tailgating you right now, and the operant response of tailgating is a strong one because it has been reinforced many times in the past, then it probably is unlikely that he will stop tailgating you right now, although it might work. If a second goal is to reduce the man’s tailgating into the future, and the operant response is a strong one, then multiple pairings of the operant response and punishment probably would be required before the man reduced his tailgating. In this case, virtually all of the people tailgated by this man would need to step on their brakes.
There is an important influence on this man’s behavior — what he is thinking — that we are ignoring because early behaviorists would have ignored it. We all know (even if early behaviorists did not) that an important determinant of whether or not he stops tailgating you is what the man thinks you are trying to do when you step on your brakes. If he infers that you are trying to punish him, then his thoughts (“Who does she think she is? Does she think that I am some child who needs to be punished?”) may cause him to become angry and he may respond aggressively: he may, for example, decide to follow you around town, tailgating you the whole way. On the other hand, after inferring that you are trying to punish him, his thoughts may cause him to feel ashamed (Oh no! She’s upset at me because I was doing something stupid.”) and he may decide to stop tailgating you. The man’s inferences and the thoughts that follow these inferences are influenced by still other cognitive factors (for example, core beliefs about himself and his worth as a person). By ignoring cognitive factors such as beliefs, inferences, decisions, judgments, assumptions, etc., behaviorists were unable to adequately explain many things about human behavior, and perhaps even many things about the behaviors of other species (click this link for a collection of relatively easy-to-understand articles about animal cognition). In Chapters 5 and 6, you will learn much more about cognitive approaches to understanding the causes of behavior.
Punishment Versus Negative Reinforcement
One issue that often confuses students is the distinction between punishment and negative reinforcement. Many people, even students who have learned about operant conditioning, use the term negative reinforcement when they really mean punishment, probably because the word negative sounds like something that should be punishing. For example, one blog writer (see Anonymous, 2008), in trying to educate parents about how to get rid of their children’s undesirable behaviors, provided the example of a business owner who was tired of his employees showing up late for meetings and was determined to get them
into the habit of showing up on time. So instead of waiting for the stragglers, he would start each and every meeting promptly when it was scheduled. When a straggler tried to sneak into the room late, he would pause, frown, and then continue with the meeting as if nothing happened. The people that came on time would also participate with the pausing and frowning. In essence, everyone gave the person who was late instant negative reinforcement for bad behavior…. Within two weeks, people were showing up to each and every meeting on time and all it really took to accomplish this goal was some frowning. (Anonymous, 2008; bolded-emphasis added)
The term negative reinforcement in the quoted passage is incorrect: the correct term for what the business owner and others were doing is punishment. It was punishment because, by pausing and frowning, they were trying to weaken the operant response of coming late to meetings, not strengthen it. It is important for you to remember that a negative reinforcement strengthens an operant response by taking something away after the response.
To be fair, the anonymous blogger stated that he was using negative reinforcement in a way that was incorrect, but that he did this because he had noticed that “a lot of laymen will get confused if you start delving into the intricate differences between negative punishment, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and so on and so forth.” He was absolutely correct, which is why I’m taking the time to address the confusion. Perhaps his strategy of using negative reinforcement when he really meant punishment was justified for his purposes; but, in a psychology course, it is important for students to learn to use these terms as they are defined by psychologists who study learning. In this way, perhaps future bloggers (anonymous or not) will not feel compelled to use the incorrect term: they will be able to assume that most of their audience understands the term.
Please watch the following two clips. Which illustrates punishment and which illustrates negative reinforcement?
Study Questions for Section 4-17
- How would you define positive reinforcement in your own words?
- What are some examples of positive reinforcement from your everyday life? In each of these examples, what is the discriminative stimulus, operant response, and positive reinforcement?
- How would you define negative reinforcement in your own words?
- What are some examples of negative reinforcement from your everyday life? In each of these examples, what is the discriminative stimulus, operant response, and negative reinforcement?
- How is positive reinforcement similar to and different from negative reinforcement?
- How is positive reinforcement important for the development of addicitive behaviors?
- How is negative reinforcement important for the development of addicitve behaviors?
- How would you define positive punishment in your own words?
- What are some examples of positive punishment from your everyday life? In each of these examples, what is the discriminative stimulus, operant response, and positive punishment?
- How would you define negative punishment in your own words?
- What are some examples of negative punishment from your everyday life? In each of these examples, what is the discriminative stimulus, operant response, and negative punishment?
- How is positive punishment similar to and different from negative punishment?
- In your own words, how would you define extinction in operant conditioning?
- How is punishment similar to and different from extinction?
- How is punishment similar to and different from negative reinforcement?
- In the example used to illustrate the distinction between punishment and negative reinforcement — the employer punishing employees for showing up late to meetings by pausing and frowning — did the employer use positive or negative punsihment? (Explain your answer.)
- If the employer used positive punishment, what might have been an effective negative punishment? If, on the other hand, the employer used negative punishment, what might have been an effective positive punishment?