If you have ever done potty training for a toddler, behavior training for a dog, or even had cheat meals while dieting, you have engaged in a technique called operant conditioning. It involves learning and altering certain behaviors by utilizing reinforcement and punishment. If you are teaching a dog to not pull on the leash while walking, you might reinforce good behavior where you give them a treat when they do not pull. If you are teaching a toddler not throw temper tantrums when they do not get their way, you might put them in timeout when they act out. If you are trying to lose weight, you might reward yourself for having a good week of working out and eating well by having pizza for dinner on the weekend. All these examples involve altering behaviors with the intention of seeking more desirable behaviors (i.e. a dog that does not a pull on the leash, a toddler that does not throw a tantrum every time the parent says ‘no’, a person that develops better exercise and eating habits). One of the ways to go about conditioning is through positive punishment. The positive part means adding, rather than removing, some kind of stimulus and the punishment means it is an adverse stimulus. For example, rather than taking their phone away (negative punishment), a parent might force their teen to do extra chores around the house for a month (positive punishment). There are benefits and drawbacks to this particular type of conditioning:
- It can prevent worse behaviors from occurring. If a parent puts their children in timeout for screaming at each other, they are working to prevent other undesirable behaviors like hitting. They are attempting to correct lesser, although still undesirable, behaviors in hopes to prevent more escalated behaviors.
- It can deter certain behaviors. It can help make the connection there are behaviors that are not acceptable. Especially for young children, it can help them understand that certain behaviors will not be tolerated and try to prevent those behaviors from reoccurring. Punishment can be a quick way to inhibit unwanted behaviors.
- It illustrates the concept of unwanted consequences. The whole purpose of punishment is not only to prevent behaviors but also to create unwanted consequences. Punishment shows there are undesirable consequences to inappropriate behaviors.
- Punishment can lead to fear, anxiety, and even aggression. It can lead to negative associations emotionally. Punishment can be effective, but it depends on how it is enforced. If a coach berates a player every time he makes a mistake, he might develop performance anxiety or lash out against team rules due to emotional distress. If not done well, punishment can inadvertently create other undesired behaviors.
- It does not focus on the desired behavior. Punishment focuses more on what not to do rather than what to do. It might seem like semantics, but it is an important reframe to understand. If you think more about what you can do rather than what you cannot do, it will feel different mentally and emotionally.
- Positive reinforcement is found to be better long term. It helps build intrinsic motivation. At first, the behavior is done to seek a reward, but over time, motivation can turn more towards the positive feelings associated with doing something well (intrinsic) becoming less focused on the reward (extrinsic). In general, most people (but especially children) respond well to encouragement and reinforcement rather than punishment.
While reinforcement is found to be better long term, punishment can be effective if utilized appropriately. It is important to process through this type of conditioning, making sure you go about it in a way that will be effective and help you achieve the desired behaviors and goals.
Michelle Overman is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist working as a counselor for students, faculty, and staff at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. She works with athletes, bridging the gap between athletics and mental health at ACU. She is becoming a Certified Mental Performance Consultant in sports psychology. Michelle ran her own private practice in Austin, Texas where she worked with a diverse population, including couples and families. Michelle earned a Master’s in Marriage & Family Therapy and has been working in the field for 6 years.