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Penalty imposed on another as a result of unwanted behavior.

Punishment is defined as the administration of aversive stimulus to reduce or eliminate unwanted behavior. It can be either physical or nonphysical. Punishment differs from negative reinforcement in that the latter increases the frequency of behavior by removing a negative event. Punishment can be as simple as giving electric shocks to lab rats to prevent them from touching a lever or as complex—and controversial—as placing criminals in jail for breaking the law. The use and effectiveness of corporal punishment have also been debated by psychologists, parents, teachers, and religious leaders for many years.

Research studies have found that punishment is effective in suppressing or eliminating unwanted behavior. But in order for punishment to be effective it must happen immediately after the behavior, be severe, and occur every time the behavior occurs. Detractors of the use of punishment have pointed out that, outside the laboratory setting, it is almost impossible to consistently administer punishment in this manner.

Even when punishment is administered "properly," psychologists have questioned the value of punishment in truly changing behavior, arguing that the desired outcome is only temporary. As evidenced by increasing crime rates in most major cities, punishment (fines, imprisonment,

Positive punishment Negative punishment
When the subject—a person or animal— engages in a behavior and something negative is applied as a result, the behavior is less likely to be repeated. When the subject—a person or animal— engages in a behavior and something positive is taken away, that behavior is less likely to be repeated.

social stigma, etc.) does not appear to deter unwanted behavior. In addition, psychologists have identified other "downsides" to using punishment. For instance, people use punishment inappropriately, decreasing its effectiveness. People punish when they are upset or angry. The recipient experiences anxiety, fear, rage, or hatred. The use of punishment can lead to more resistance and aggression on the part of the one being punished. The punishment can also backfire—instead of serving to punish a child, for example, spanking brings the wanted attention of a parent. In addition, corporal punishment defeats its own purpose by modeling aggressive or physical behavior, the very behavior it is often attempting to correct.

Most current promoters of punitive discipline in the United States espouse nonphysical forms of control, such as the use of reinforcements, logical consequences, or penalties. With children, behavior modification techniques such as time-out have proven very effective in modifying disruptive behaviors such as hitting, grabbing, talking back, or tantrums.

Further Reading

McCord, Joan, ed. Coercion and Punishment in Long-Term Perspectives. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Straus, Murray, Richard Gelles, and Suzanne Steinmetz. Behind Closed Doors: Violence in the American Family. New York: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1980.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaPsychological Dictionary: Perception: early Greek theories to Zombie