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Techniques Conditioning > Punishment

Description | Example | Discussion | See also



Punishment is the administration of discomfort following an undesirable action (or inaction). Positive punishment is taking action to cause discomfort (such as hitting). Negative punishment is removal or non-delivery of something desired (such as not giving food).

A common intent of punishment is that the subject will, in future, obey a command. There are a number of reasons why this may not work. Punishment may be effective in reducing an undesired action, but the likelihood of unintended complications makes this a risky approach.

When punishment is used, it should be the minimum necessary to dissuade repetition of undesired actions (in other words, to stop them doing something wrong). It should be administered as soon as the undesired action happens (and especially before this becomes habituated) and should be a surprise for the subject. The subject must also know that the punishment was caused by their action and be able to conclude that ceasing the action will prevent punishment.


A dog owner shouts at it when the dog messes indoors. The dog learns not to let the owner see where it goes in future.

Another dog owner says 'no' in low tone to a dog that jumps up on a child, then praises it when it stops. The dog learns not to jump up on people.

A child acts out at school. Its parents get angry. As an act of revenge, the child acts out again, even worse this time. The parents consult the school and work out a schedule of rewards for being good that are reduced when the school reports acting out in future.


Punishment is not conditioning in any positive sense. It is not a cue that triggers specific action. It is not a positive reward for which a subject will perform a desired action. It is not negative reinforcement when it seeks to create an action (but can be when it stops unwanted action). Even when negative reinforcement is being deliberately used, there is always a danger of it including punishing effect. When punishment works it is because it simply pairs discomfort with unwanted action. With humans, it is very helpful if the subject concludes that the punishment was fair and just.

Punishment fails in a number of situations, including:

  • Where the subject does not know what is wanted of them.
  • Where the punishment is administered too late for the subject to associate it with the undesired action.
  • When the subject fails to connect the punishment with what they have done, or not.
  • When the subject knows they will be punished but still acts incorrectly.
  • When the subject likes the undesired action more than they dislike the punishment.
  • Where the subject considers the punishment unfair.
  • When the punishment does not result in discomfort for the subject.
  • When the punishment just confuses the subject.
  • When the subject considers withstanding punishment as a 'badge of courage'.
  • Where a fight-or-flight reaction is triggered, leading to running away or reactive aggression.
  • When the subject has become accustomed to the punishment such that is no longer aversive.

The basic problem with punishment is that it can cause aversive and avoidant responses. When a subject experiences discomfort, they try to get away from it. The greater the discomfort, the greater the effort to escape or otherwise reduce the discomfort. This can turn into a conditioned response whereby cues lead to fear and coping reactions, rather than simply choosing not to indulge in unwanted actions. When the coping is even less desirable than the original unwanted action, such as a dog running away or snarling, then this is clearly a problem for the trainer.  If humans do not think punishment fair, they can become vengeful and may increase the unwanted action as an act of retribution.

Punishment also fails when it is excessive. This tends to happen when the trainer punishes not as a training method but in anger and revenge against the subject for failing to comply. Once the subject no longer associates the punishment with the unwanted action, the punishment is no longer about effective conditioning. Conditioning may well still happen, but this trains the subject into further unwanted aversive and coping actions.

Perception is important in punishment and seemingly innocuous or even positive action can be received as punishment. For example the use of a lure, while seemingly a reward may be seen as a negative punishment while it is not being given, and hence have limited effect in training a desired action. Animals in particular have limited ability to think about the future and how they should not take certain actions in order to avoid punishment.

Punishment is often culturally embedded, for example where there are sayings like 'spare the rod and spoil the child'. It is more likely to be found in aggressive cultural contexts where people live by their reputation rather than mutual respect or acceptance of law. In such situations, kindness may be seen as being weak and physical aggression as the 'only thing that people understand'.

When punishment does not lead to the desired actions, a typical response is to escalate, making the punishment even harsher. This can be a slippery slope into loss of self-control as frustration turns to aggression which keeps on rising.

Punishing humans often includes blame, guilt, shame and invocation of other self-negative emotions. This is a tricky path and can again have unexpected and undesirable results, including long-term loss in self-esteem.

Punishing animals often includes hitting or scolding. Yet animals often do not connect the punishment with the unwanted action and may be confused or see it as something like the 'top dog' asserting their position (and so become cowed or reactive).

Punishment is seen by many as immoral and hence to be avoided at all costs. People who punish are cast as being bad and, paradoxically, may themselves be punished for their punishing acts. It is often the recourse of people who know no other method and perhaps who were trained by punishment themselves. Punishment is bad and immoral when it is used as a means of gratification for the punisher.

Sometimes we punish ourselves when we feel we have not done as well as we should. We tell ourselves we deserve it. Perhaps this is an echo of childhood where teachers or parents punished us. Yet if it has no good effect or further damages us, it does not make sense to continue.

See also

Negative Reinforcement


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