Negative punishment is an important concept in B. F. Skinner's theory of operant conditioning. In behavioral psychology, the goal of punishment is to decrease the behavior that precedes it. In the case of negative punishment, it involves taking something good or desirable away in order to reduce the occurrence of a particular behavior.
One of the easiest ways to remember this concept is to note that in behavioral terms, positive means adding something while negative means taking something away. For this reason, negative punishment is often referred to as punishment by removal.
Examples of Negative Punishment
- After getting in a fight with his sister over who gets to play with a new toy, the mother simply takes the toy away.
- A teenage girl stays out for an hour past her curfew, so her parents ground her for a week.
- A third-grade boy yells at another student during class, so his teacher takes away "good behavior" tokens that can be redeemed for prizes.
Can you identify the examples of negative punishment? Losing access to a toy, being grounded and losing reward tokens are all examples of negative punishment. In each case, something good is being taken away as a result of the individual's undesirable behavior.
The Effects of Negative Punishment
While negative punishment can be highly effective, Skinner and other researchers have suggested that a number of different factors can influence its success.
Negative punishment is most effective when:
- It immediately follows a response
- It is applied consistently
Consider this example: a teenage girl has a driver's license, but it does not allow her to drive at night. However, she drives at night several times a week without facing any consequences. One evening while she is driving to the mall with a friend, she is pulled over and issued a ticket. As a result, she receives a notice in the mail a week later informing her that her driver's privileges have been revoked for 30 days. Once she regains her license, she goes back to driving at night even though she has six more months before she is legally allowed to drive during evening and nighttime hours.
As you might have guessed, losing her license is the negative punishment in this example. So why would she continue to engage in the behavior even though it led to a punishment? Because the punishment was inconsistently applied (she drove at night many times without facing punishment) and because the punishment was not applied immediately (her driving privileges were not revoked until a week after she was caught), negative punishment was not effective at curtailing her behavior.
Another major problem with punishment is that while it might reduce the unwanted behavior, it does not really provide any information or instruction on more appropriate reactions. Skinner also noted that once the punishment is withdrawn, the behavior is very likely to return.
Hockenbury, D., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.
Skinner, B. F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf.