ABA Basics, Part 3: Positive Punishment

In the last two parts of this blog series we looked at reinforcement, which increases a certain behavior. Today we are going to explore positive punishment, which has the effect of decreasing a behavior telehealth activities. As I mentioned in the first blog, we as behavior analysts want to understand why certain behaviors may occur, and what consequences either maintain them or prevent them from occurring again. Reinforcers maintain behavior, and punishers decrease the probability that they will happen again.

Positive punishment is when a particular behavior is weakened by the consequence of experiencing a negative condition. In other words, after a behavior occurs, a negative condition is added in order to decrease the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. Let’s take a look at some examples:

While driving to the grocery store, Darren decides to drive over the speed limit. A police officer pulls him over and gives him a ticket for speeding, which carries a fine of $150. This upsets Darren, and he decides to watch his speed more closely in the future while driving.

Despite her mother’s many warnings, Mary keeps trying to touch the stove while it is hot. One day, while her mother’s back is turned, Mary touches a pot on the stove, and it burns her finger comparing the two online therapy platforms. Mary feels hurt and upset, and does not ever touch the stove without permission again.

In both of these examples, a negative or aversive condition was added as a consequence of behavior. The consequence for Darren’s speeding behavior was the addition of a $150 fine, which is likely to reduce his speeding behavior in the future. Darren has experienced positive punishment!

There is something I would like to mention: the word “punishment” has unpleasant connotations for most of us – we tend to associate it with a consequence that is given out of anger or frustration, such as yelling, spanking, or taking away toys. Each of those is an example of a punisher; however, a good behavior analyst or therapist knows that the one and only goal of a punishment procedure is to reduce an unwanted behavior – NOT to retaliate. Although it is important that a consequence be delivered immediately, avoid giving any forms of punishment (and especially any physical form of punishment) while you are angry. As hard as it is, emotion needs to be removed from the equation so that behavior modification can be the focus.

Although positive punishment procedures are quite effective in reducing a child’s unwanted behaviors, most ABA practitioners try to focus on reinforcement or extinction procedures whenever possible (we’ll talk about extinction in the next blog!). Aside from the possibility of punishment-elicited aggression on the part of the child, positive punishment procedures can be difficult to transfer outside of the learning environment and into real-world scenarios. However, punishment is an invaluable tool to use when dealing with behaviors – especially severe or harmful behaviors that need to be stopped as soon as possible qualified therapists.

I also want to note that as important as it is to reduce an unwanted behavior, it is equally as important to remember to reinforce adaptive alternative behaviors. If you want Anna to stop banging her toys together when she plays with them, don’t just punish her when she bangs them together – also remember to reinforce her when she is playing with them appropriately. This increases the effectiveness of a punisher immensely, and also reinforces Anna’s appropriate play skills!

What are some positive punishment procedures that you have administered in the past? What about any punishments that you have received?

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