How Negative Punishment Works

While much of ABA therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Operant Conditioning focus on positive reinforcement to adjust the outcomes of specific behaviors, there are times when negative behaviors have an appropriate place. Even the ground-breaking psychologist B.F. Skinner noted that an animal or a person’s behavior can be increased or decreased by adding or removing appropriate stimuli. Though this required practiced application and consistency, without any degree of emotional transference.

To know how to properly integrate negative punishments into a therapy strategy, it helps to first understand the difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning. The latter is used to gradually affect unconscious behavior, while operant conditioning is designed to affect conscious behavior.

Inside the realm of operant conditioning, the role of negative behavior punishment is designed to reduce a specific behavior while simultaneously reinforcing a healthier behavior. Though in this psychological concept, punishment or reinforcement can be applied as either being positive or negative.

What Is Considered a Negative Punishment?

In operant conditioning, the term “Negative Punishment” means to reduce a specific behavior or response by taking away some sort of favorable stimulus following that action. This might be a tangible item or it might be removing an enjoyed activity. There are different ways of implementing this concept.

Punishment By Removal

This type of negative punishment is designed to decrease the likelihood of the behavior recurring by removing a key stimulus that the individual engages in and already considers pleasant or to be essential. The goal is for the subject to learn to associate the negative consequence with the behavior. This type of conditioning is known formally as “Punishment by Removal.”

Examples of Punishment By Removal

Punishment by removal can come in several forms. Though it needs to be focused on removing something that the individual already enjoys, uses, or prioritizes. This can include things like

  • Removing key privileges
  • Being fined for violating the law
  • Being grounded
  • Losing access to a tablet or gaming system
  • Screen time is cut short to stop a tantrum
  • Taking away a teenager’s phone
  • Removing attention by looking away

Measuring The Effectiveness Of Negative Punishment

Negative punishment can be highly effective at alternative negative behaviors. Though in the realm of operant conditioning, and the metrics used in ABA therapy, this approach requires following specific criteria, which have conditions that need to be met. This includes the timing of when they are applied.

They are commonly defined as Contingency, Contiguity, and Consistency. To understand how each of these criteria is assessed in a negative punishment treatment strategy, it helps to take a closer look at each.

Applying Contingency To Negative Punishment Techniques

Contingency is the common operant conditioning term used to describe the dependent nature of the punishment as it is directly related to the behavior. This requires the punishment to be applied whenever the target behavior manifests. At that point, the punishment will depend directly on the appearance of the undesired behavior.

In a scenario where stimulus removal is used as the form of negative punishment, it needs to be based on whether the act appears before or after the behavior occurs. This will have a direct impact on the effectiveness of a negative punishment technique.

Applying Contiguity To Negative Punishment Techniques

In a negative punishment treatment plan, contiguity is related to the immediacy of the behavior as well as the application of stimulus removal. Should the negative punishment be delayed, the suppression of behavior will typically not be as effective​​ This can skew data and potentially impact the efficacy of the treatment plan.

Any time that there’s a significant gap between the behavior and stimulus removal, the association is diminished to some degree. This also opens the door for other potential actions to appear in the interim. In a scenario like this, the behavior might then mistakenly become the one being suppressed. This can complicate the negative punishment process, which makes contiguity such an important criterion to be met in every single negative punishment application.

Applying Consistency To Negative Punishment Techniques

Consistency is an absolute cornerstone criterion for any negative punishment therapy technique to be effective. The individual needs to be ingrained with the idea that every time they engage in the unwanted or unhealthy behavior they will receive the same negative punishment response to the same degree.

Inconsistency can encourage a sense of tolerance toward the behavior, as it is unclear if reinforcement will occur. This can ultimately defeat the entire negative punishment technique’s effectiveness. Not to mention obscuring data that can be analyzed for future progress using ABA therapy techniques.

What Are The Possible Side Effects Of Negative Punishment?

Of course, negative punishment is not a perfect solution to all problem behaviors. One of the primary problems that can occur with a negative punishment approach is that it is only truly effective for as long as the stimulus is consistently removed.

Though once the negative punishment ceases, the undesired behavior is likely to resume. This can lead to issues with tolerance for negative punishments or even a possible long-term escalation of resistance to punishment through increased negative outbursts.

Another potential drawback of the negative punishment approach is that while it can potentially stop an arrest for a specific undesirable behavior, it cannot directly provide information on what the desired behavior actually is. This leaves the individual to explore the potential options on their own. Without careful guidance, this can lead the individual to simply choose an alternative undesirable behavior.

Preventing this from happening is one of the primary reasons why so many people choose to have their child’s ABA therapy process guided by an experienced professional. Not only does this help guide the child for the highest efficacy in modifying their behavior, but it also provides you, the parents with an invaluable resource.

When you partner with experienced ABA professionals your child’s therapist move with you through every phase of the treatment process to help your child connect the dots leading toward fewer negative behaviors, and a higher level of positive, healthy ones.