SPED 8013 | Chapter 14: Punishment by Presentation of an SD


  • Learning from the consequences that produce pain or discomfort, or the loss of reinforcers, has survival value for the individual and the species
  • Punishment teaches us not to repeat responses that cause us harm
  • Punishment is:
    • Poorly understood
    • Frequently misapplied
    • Controversial

As a principle of behavior, punishment is not about punishing the person

Punishment is a:

…contingency that suppresses the future frequency of similar responses

Definitions & Nature of Punishment

Operations & Defining Effect of Punishment

  • Punishment has occurred when a response is followed immediately by a stimulus change that decreases the future frequency of similar responses
  • Punishment is defined neither by the actions of the person delivering the consequences, nor by the nature of those consequences
  • A decrease in the future frequency of the occurrence of the behavior must be observed before a consequence-based intervention qualifies as a punishment

Positive Punishment & Negative Punishment

  • Positive Punishment
    • Presentation of a stimulus (or an increase in the intensity of an already present stimulus) immediately following a behavior that results in a decrease in the future frequency of the behavior
  • Negative Punishment
    • The termination of an already present stimulus (or a decrease in the intensity of an already present stimulus) immediately following a behavior that results in a decrease in the future frequency of the behavior

For a stimulus change to function as negative punishment, which amounts to the removal of a positive reinforcer, a “motivating operation for the reinforcer must be in effect, otherwise removing it will not constitute punishment.” – Michael, 2004, p. 36

Positive and Negative punishment are sometimes identified as:

  • Type I Punishment
  • Type II Punishment

Because aversive events are associated with positive punishment and with negative reinforcement, the umbrella term aversive control is often used to describe intervention involving either or both of these two principles.

Discriminative Effects of Punishment

The 3 Term Contingency for Punishment

  1. In a particular stimulus situation (S)
  2. some kinds of behavior (R), when followed immediately by
  3. certain stimulus changes (SP), show a decreased future frequency of occurrence in the same or in similar situations

If punishment occurs only in some stimulus conditions and not in others, the suppressive effects of punishment will be most prevalent under those conditions

  • The symbol adopted by Cooper, Heron, and Heward for the discriminative stimulus for punishment is SDp 
    • Essentially what that is, is what is going on in the environment directly before the behavior occurs that’s followed by punishment.
    • SDp
      • A stimulus condition in the presence of which a response has a lower probability of occurrence than it does in its absence as a result of response-contingent punishment delivery in the presence of the stimulus

Three-term contingencies illustrating positive and negative punishment of a discriminated operant: A response (R) emitted in the presence of a discriminative stimulus (SDp) is followed closely in time by a stimulus change (SP) and results in a decreased frequency of similar responses in the future when the SDp is present. A discriminated operant for punishment is the product of a conditioning history in which responses in the presence of the SDp have been punished and similar responses in the absence of the SDp have not been punished.

Recovery from Punishment

  • When punishment is discontinued, its suppressive effects on responding are usually not permanent
  • Sometimes the rate of responding after punishment is discontinued will not only recover but briefly exceed the level at which it was occurring prior to punishment
  • Permanent response suppression may occur when complete suppression of behavior to a zero rate of responding has been achieved with intense punishment

Unconditioned and Conditioned Punishers

  • A punisher is a stimulus change that immediately follows the occurrence of a behavior and reduces the future frequency of that type of behavior
  • An unconditioned punisher is a stimulus whose presentation functions as punishment without having been paired with any other punishers
    • Product of evolutionary history of a species (phylogeny); all biologically intact members of a species are more or less susceptible to punishment by the same unconditioned punishers
  • A conditioned punisher is a stimulus change that functions as punishment as a result of a person’s conditioning history
    • Acquires the capability to function as a punisher through stimulus-stimulus pairing with one or more unconditioned or conditioned punishers
    • If the conditioned punisher is repeatedly presented without the punisher(s) with which it was initially paired, its effectiveness as punishment will diminish until it is no longer a punisher
  • Verbal analog conditioning
    • Previously neutral stimuli can also become conditioned punishers for humans without direct physical pairing with another punisher
  • Generalized Conditioned Punisher
    • A stimulus change that has been paired with numerous forms of unconditioned and conditioned punishers becomes generalized
    • Generalized conditioned punishers are free from the control of specific motivating conditions and will function as punishment under most circumstances


Punishers, like reinforcers, are not defined by
their physical properties, but by their functions.

Factors That Influence the Effectiveness of Punishment

  • Immediacy of punishment
    • Maximum suppressive effects are obtained when the onset of the punisher occurs as soon as possible after the occurrence of a target response
  • Intensity of punishment
    • The more intense the punishing stimulus is the greater effect it will have on future responding
  • Schedule or frequency of punishment
    • The greater the proportion of responses that are followed by the punisher, the greater the response reduction
    • Continuous Punishment = response suppression, but allows for rapid recover when punishment contingency is removed
  • Availability of reinforcement for the target behavior
    • The effectiveness of punishment is modulated by the reinforcement contingencies maintaining the problem behavior
    • To the extent that reinforcement maintaining the problem behavior can be reduced or eliminated, punishment will be more effective
  • Availability of reinforcement for an alternative behavior
    • Milleson (1967) stated: If punishment is employed in an attempt to eliminate certain behavior, then whatever reinforcement the undesirable behavior had led to must be made available via a more desirable behavior.

Possible Side Effects and Problems with Punishment

  • Emotional and Aggressive Reactions
    • Punishment, especially positive punishment in the form of aversive stimulation, may evoke or elicit aggressive behavior with respondent and operant components
  • Escape and Avoidance
    • Natural reactions to aversive stimulation
    • As the intensity of the punisher increases, so does the likelihood of escape and avoidance
    • Can be minimized by providing alternate responses that come into contact with reinforcement and avoid the punisher
  • Behavioral Contrast
    • Change in one component of a multiple schedule that increases or decreases the rate of responding on that component is accompanied by a change in the response rate in the opposite direction on the other, altered component of the schedule
  • Modeling undesirable behavior
    • Two decades of research have found strong correlation between young children’s exposure to “harsh and excessive punishment” and antisocial behavior and conduct disorders as adolescents and adults” – Patterson, 1982; Patterson, Reid & Dishion, 1992; Sprague & Walker, 2000
  • Not teaching the learner what to do
  • Overusing punishment because of the negative reinforcement it provides the punishing agent
    • Negative Reinforcement of the Punishing Agent’s behavior
      • Punishment reinforces the punisher
      • Punishment tends to terminate the punished behavior quickly. The punisher’s behavior tends to be negatively reinforced by immediate cessation of the punished behavior

Examples of Positive Punishment Interventions

  • Reprimands
    • The delivery of verbal reprimands following the occurrence of misbehavior is an example of attempted positive punishment
    • Reprimands given repeatedly may lead to the subject habituating to the stimulus (i.e. in one ear and out the other)
  • Response Blocking
    • Physically intervening as soon as the person begins to emit the problem behavior to prevent or “block” the completion of the response has been shown to be effective in reducing the frequency of some problem behaviors.
    • Suppressive effects of response blocking may be due to punishment or extinction
    • Response blocking as a treatment intervention must be approached with great care
    • Side effects such as aggression and resistance to the response blocking procedure have occurred in some studies
  • Contingent Exercise – Contingent Effort
    • An intervention in which the person is required to perform a response that is not topographically related to the problem behavior
    • Example: Drill sergeant telling cadet to drop and give me fifty for speaking out of line, teacher requiring misbehaving student write “I will not talk out in class” on the chalk board
  • Overcorrection
    • A behavior change tactic based on positive punishment in which, contingent on the problem behavior, the learner is required to engage in effortful behavior that is directly or logically related to the problem
    • There are two forms:
      • Restitutional Overcorrection
        • Contingent on the problem behavior, the learner is required to repair or return the environment to its original state and then to engage in additional behavior to bring the environment to a condition vastly better than it was prior to the misbehavior
      • Positive Practice
        • Contingent on an occurrence of the target behavior the learner is required to repeat a correct form of the behavior, or a behavior incompatible with the problem, a specified number of times
      • Note- Negative practice is not overcorrection
  • Contingent Electric Stimulation
    • 46 Studies have demonstrated that contingent electric stimulation can be a safe and highly effective method for suppressing chronic and life-threatening self-injurious behavior (SIB)
    • Self-Injurious Behavior Inhibiting System (SIBIS)
      • One of the most rigorously researched and carefully applied procedures for implementing punishment by electric stimulation for self-inflicted blows to the head or face

Guidelines for Using Punishment Effectively

Select Effective and Appropriate Punishers

  • Conduct Punisher Assessments
  • Parallel process to a reinforcer assessment (Ch. 11)
  • Advantages:
    1. The sooner an effective punisher can be identified, the sooner it can be applied to treat the problem behavior
    2. Data from the punisher assessments might reveal the magnitude or intensity of punisher necessary for behavioral suppression. Allows practitioner to determine the smallest intensity of punisher that is still effective
  • Use punishers of sufficient quality and magnitude
    • The greater the intensity, the greater the suppression
    • Beginning at sufficient intensity lessens the chance of attenuation
    • Evaluate within context of least-restrictive
  • Consider using varied punishers
    • Varying the form of the punishing stimulus enhanced the punishing effect-may minimize attenuation
    • It appears that by presenting a varied format of commonly used punishers, inappropriate behaviors may further decrease without the use of more intrusive punishment procedures
  • Deliver the punishment at the beginning of the response chain
    • As much as practical, punishment should occur early in the behavioral sequence rather than later
  • Punish each instance of the behavior initially
    • Punishment is most effective when the punisher follows each response
  • Gradually shift to an intermittent schedule of punishment
    • Thin gradually and planfully
    • Combine with extinction
    • Continue to evaluate
    • May result in greater maintenance of effects
  • Use mediation with a response-to-punishment delay
    • The consequences that maintain responding in natural environments are often delayed
    • Literature demonstrating this is minimal
  • Supplement punishment with complementary interventions:
    • DRA – Differential reinforcement of alternate behavior
    • DRI – Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior
    • DRO – Differential reinforcement of other behavior
    • NCR – Non-contingent reinforcement
  • Watch for Side Effects of Punishment
    • The suppression of one inappropriate behavior may lead to the increased expression of another or the complete suppression of all other behaviors
    • Decreasing episodes of self-injurious behavior may produce increased levels of verbal noncompliance
    • Expand observations to include collateral or parallel behaviors
  • Record, Graph and Evaluate Data Daily
    • Data collection in the first session or two of a punishment based intervention is especially critical
    • Graphing the frequency of the target behavior before, during, and after the presentation of the punisher establishes the effectiveness of punishment

Ethical Consideration Regarding the Use of Punishment

  • Right to Safe and Humane Treatment
    • The first ethical canon and responsibility for any human services provider is to do no harm
  • Least Restrictive Alternative
    • Interventions can be viewed as falling along a continuum of restrictiveness from least to most.
    • Less intrusive procedures should be tried and found to be ineffective (literally or conceptually) before more intrusive procedures are implemented
    • A procedure’s overall level of restrictiveness is a combined function of its absolute level of restrictiveness, the amount of time required to produce a clinically acceptable outcome, and the consequences associated with delayed intervention
  • Right to Effective Treatment
    • Failing to use a punishment procedure that research has shown to suppress a self-destructive behavior similar to the client’s is unethical because it withholds a potentially effective treatment and may maintain a dangerous or uncomfortable state for the person.
  • Developing and Using a Punishment Policy and Procedural Safeguards
    • Follow a written policy statement
    • Consult local, state, or professional association policy statement regarding the use of punishment

Concluding Perspectives

  • Recognizing punishment’s natural and necessary role in learning
    • Behavior analysts should not shy away from punishment, but should strive to understand it
    • Positive and negative punishment contingencies naturally occur as a part of everyday life
  • Punishment is a natural part of life
    • Punishment happens!
    • Whether punishment is socially mediated, planned or unplanned, or conducted by sophisticated practitioners, Vollmer (2002) believed that a science of behavior should study punishment
  • More Research on Punishment is Needed
    • Many recommendations for punishment are derived from basic research conducted more than 40 years ago
    • While this research is still valid, there has been reluctance to expand upon it
  • Interventions Featuring Positive Punishment Should be Treated as Default Technologies
    • Iwata (1988) recommended that punishment-based intervention involving the contingent application of aversive stimulation, such as SIBIS, be treated as default technologies.
    • A default technology is one that the practitioner turns to when other methods have failed