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What Is Punishment?

Updated: Feb 26


Written by: Sindy Victor, MS, BCBA, LBA


Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) is a science devoted to the understanding and improvement of human behavior. Punishment is a behavior analytic term used to describe a consequence that decreases the future frequency of a specific type of behavior (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2007). As with reinforcement, there are two types of stimulus change operations associated with punishment: positive and negative. To be clear, punishment is not defined by the actions of the person delivering the consequences but by a decrease in the future frequency of occurrences of a given behavior. See examples below....


positive punishment, sp+, applied behavior analysis, punisher
The presentation of an unpleasant or aversive stimulus immediately following a behavior that results in a decrease in future frequency of occurrences of said behavior(s).

negative punishment, sp-, applied behavior analysis, ABA Therapy
The withdrawal of a stimulus immediately following a behavior that results in a decrease in future frequency of occurrences of said behavior(s).

 

A punisher refers to the actual stimulus change applied immediately following a behavior that decreases the future likelihood of said behavior. As with reinforcement, there are two types of punishers: unconditioned and conditioned. An unconditioned punisher is a stimulus change that requires no prior learning history to have a decreasing effect on behavior(s) that precede it. For example, trauma to the body, or distasteful odors & foods are unconditioned punishers.

unconditioned punisher, stimulus change, behavior altering effects, reinforcement, ABA Therapy
a stimulus that functions as a punishment without any prior learning history (ex. pain, bad smells, or non-preferred foods).

conditioned punisher, secondary reinforcer, learning history, ABA Therapy
a stimulus change that functions as a punishment as a result of a person’s conditioned history, also known as a secondary or learned punisher.

"A person who has been punished is not less inclined to behave in a certain way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment" B.F. Skinner. The suppressive effects of punishment are often reversible, but have the potential to permanently discontinue even the most desirable behaviors if the stimulus change immediately following the response is too intense. In the field of Applied Behavior Analysis, ethical considerations for behavior change are made by applying reinforcement first. According to the BACB Code Of Ethics, Behavior Analysts recommend reinforcement rather than punishment whenever possible (BACB, 2014).


References: Cooper, J.O., Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (Pearson Education, Inc.) (2nd edition).


Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2014). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. Littleton, CO: Author. Retrieved from: https://www.bacb.com/wp- content/uploads/2020/05/BACB-Compliance-Code-english_190318.pdf

 




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