A kid hits her friend with badminton racket. Is it positive punishment or negative reinforcement?

It seems like almost everyone is familiar with some of the categories of operant conditioning; however, most people aren’t fluent enough to necessarily get the category correct.

For instance I recently saw this “Heart of the City” cartoon

Thirty years ago, this cartoon would have used the term punishment instead of incorrectly using the term negative reinforcement. But starting somewhere around the early 1990s, people have increasingly used the term negative reinforcement in cases where the technique is clearly punishment—that is when the technique is meant to stop a behavior. It probably has something to do with the fact that spanking and physical force are now frowned upon when dealing with kids. And the term negative reinforcement seems nicer to some.

I’ve defined the four categories of operant conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment in an earlier blog, Gentle Leader Head Collar: Reinforcement or Punishment, and also described the methodical process for determining the category that a specific technique falls under. This method involves first defining the behavior you’re focused on, then determining whether your goal is to increase or decrease that behavior, and, third, determining whether you’re adding or removing something.

In this blog I want to go over a few examples to provide readers with practice.

Case 1: We’ll start with the case of the cartoon above. In this case, the hitting technique is positive punishment because the behavior of interest is the boy’s behavior when he’s attracted to Star Wars items, and the hitter’s goal is to stop this attraction behavior. By adding the hitting with the racquet (a procedure that is aversive/painful to the boy), the girl decreases the likelihood that the boy will show this behavior towards Star Wars items in the future. Most likely he’ll just be careful about showing the behavior when she’s around. (NOTE: By using this example, I am NOT advocating hitting, rather I’m just using the cartoonist’s example to illustrate the category of operant conditioning).

Case 2: If you use an electronic shock collar (sometimes called static technology) on a dog because he ignores you when he’s off leash at the park, what category of operant conditioning is it?
Note: I’m noterecommending electronic collars; rather, the goals here is to discuss the category of operant conditioning.

The answer here depends on what you define as the behavior and how you use the shock. If your goal is to decrease your dog’s ignoring you or running away—which is why most people use it—then by definition you are using punishment. And because you are adding something aversive enough to stop the behavior, you are using positive punishment. This is the way that most people use the collar. They see a behavior they dislike and they zap the dog high enough to hurt so the dog won’t want to perform that behavior again.

On the other hand, if your goal is to increase your dog’s behavior of coming when called, by definition you’ll use reinforcement of some kind. In this case, you use the shock at low level and as soon as the dog start coming towards you, you remove the shock. By removing the shock as soon as the dog starts coming towards you, you increase the likelihood he’ll come the next time you call. Note that with negative reinforcement, it’s important that the aversive is not so high that the dog “freaks” out. Because if they are extremely fearful, they won’t be able to think and perceive the exact instant when the shock is removed. On the other hand, the shock does have to be high enough to get the dog to change his behavior in the situation in which you’re using it. In cases with distractions, the level may be quite high. (Note: in case you just saw the term shock and freaked out and assumed I must be advocating the techniques I’m using as examples, rest assured, as stated at the beginning of this case, I am not advocating aversive techniques in this blog; rather, I’m using the techniques to illustrate the two categories of operant conditioning that use aversives—negative reinforcement and positive punishment).

Case 3: You and your friend are watching a crime show on TV and when you see the criminal go to jail you decide to discuss the category of operant conditioning. Your friend says it’s negative punishment because you’re decreasing the likelihood that the criminal (and others) will perform crimes by removing the criminal’s freedom. You think your friend is wrong and that it’s positive punishment because you’re decreasing the likelihood that criminals (and others) will perform crimes by adding scary jail environment. So who’s right? Both of you are correct, but in some cases one factor may be more important than the other. For instance, if your jail consists of house-arrest and you have a pretty nice house, or you get sent to one of those luxury jails that rich people go to, then the house-arrest/jail is a negative punishment. If, however, you’re put in the prisons that are the subject of shows such as “lock-down,” and are filled with tattooed murderers who all belong to gangs, you’re probably thinking it’s a pretty scary place and prison, in this case, is positive punishment as well as negative punishment. (Note that I am not advocating prison as the best way to prevent criminal behavior, I’m just using it as an example to illustrate the categories of operant conditioning).

Case 4: Your friend then discuss, what category is it when you send your teenager to his room? Again this depends on the perception of the room. Your goal is to decrease the teenager’s bad behavior and banishment to the room removes the freedom to do the fun things he’d like to do, so ideally the technique is negative punishment. Oddly enough, in many cases, the banishment does not serve to decrease the bad behavior because the room is actually fun. If the teenager is sent to a room with TV, computer, radio and the banishment serves as a fun time because he can play with these things without your interruption, then this banishment is actually a positive reinforcement.

Those are just a few common examples, but hopefully they give you an idea of how techniques can be easily broken into a specific category.


Need some clarification? Download the poster and read the blog post Gentle Leader Head Collar: Reinforcement or Punishment and then take the quiz. Be careful. Or you may trip up on step one!

Download the Operant Conditioning Poster as part of the Reactive Dog poster bundle at our store

Great information that will teach you the science behind learning is in the DVD Pet Dogs, Problem Dogs, High Performance Dogs, How Science Can Take Your Training to a New Level; available at our store.

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