Punishment As a Means of Controlling Behavior

The issue of how to reinforce positive behavior, as well as how to extinguish negative behavior, has been debated endlessly, with various points of view being more popular during different time periods. “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is an example of an age-old warning that the lack of use of physical punishment produces an out-of-control child. This paper will discuss the subject of punishment, and whether it is indeed an effective means of controlling behavior.

A basic concept in psychology is that positive reinforcement is a way to encourage desirable behavior, and conversely, that negative reinforcement will discourage unwanted behavior. Many people equate the word “punishment” with “discipline”. However, there are many ways to have an impact on human behavior. Yet when one thinks of controlling people’s actions, punishment is the most common method that people choose to implement. Why? To begin with, punishment has a long history of being utilized to control people’s behavior. In addition, punishment is simple: it is easier and quicker to smack someone, or berate someone with angry words than it is to structure things in a way that rewards “right” behavior (Shea, 2008.) However, there are certainly drawbacks to the use of punishment, such as the generalization that occurs along with punishment: all of the observable as well as sensory factors that the offending recipient is aware of when the punishment occurs become associated with that punishment. For example, if the child is punished by having his favorite toy taken away and placed on a high shelf so that he cannot use it, and at the same time, the weather outside is raining, that child may continue to associate that sort of weather with ominous events, becoming anxious and threatened that whenever it rains, he is going to experience some sort of loss of something of value to him.

Another negative aspect of punishment can be that it ends up reinforcing the very behaviors that it was designed to eliminate. An example of this would be punishing a child for bedwetting; if this behavior occurs because the child is fearful or insecure, punishing the bedwetting can only serve to worsen the problem and increase the child’s insecurities. As a child, when I was punished for opening up a box of candy that someone had given to my mother, I developed an aversion to chocolate covered cherries, which had been the item in question at the time. In addition, for some children, angry words or physical punishment may actually be reinforcing for them, since if a child receives little or no attention in general, getting any attention is better than getting no attention at all. The negative behaviors may become an effective way for the child to get a response from an adult. Growing up, some of the students I went to school with who acted out and were subsequently disciplined had a look of satisfaction on their faces, as well as smiles, giving the impression that they were getting something positive out of the fact that an adult had paid attention to them, albeit negative attention. Finally, punishment often leads to aggressive behavior, either by creating anger or fear, or serving as an example of violent behavior (Shea, 2008.) When physical aggression is utilized to punish children, it leaves them with the message that violence is a normal and acceptable response to other people.

In order for punishment to be effective in influencing behavior, it should be immediate, consistent, suddenly introduced, and moderate in intensity (Controlling Behavior: Rewards and Punishment, 2007.) The more frequently punishment is used to control behavior, the more the behavior may be reinforced for both the punisher and the punished. For example, if a child is yelled at by a parent for crying, the parent’s behavioral method becomes reinforced so that both parties have the same characteristic response to that situation in the future. The child may stop crying for the moment, but at some point in the future, he or she will cry again, and the parent will yell at him again.

Behavioral specialists frequently advocate the use of positive reinforcement only in response to negative behavior. This point of view frequently makes all parties involved feel better, rather than angry or guilty, and the response to negative behavior would be more neutral: the absence of positive reinforcement, which would be experienced as a loss to the child, but not one from which he can’t recover. For example, if a parent frequently praises and compliments a child who is sharing with others, then when that child misbehaves by refusing to share, the parent can express his or her displeasure with nonverbal as well as verbal cues, such as leaving the room and telling the child that he will return when the child can calm down and cooperate with the rest of the family. Naturally, in certain extreme situations such as when a child is physically aggressive or verbally abusive to others, the parent must intervene with some sort of punishment to stop the behavior. Taking a positive approach in response to adult and children’s behaviors is likely to be more effective over the long term, unless one is dealing with a sociopath. In that case, external punishments are usually the only effective means of behavior control, because that person is not motivated by any inner moral sense or conscience.

Certainly, negative behavior must be responded to, but that response must be calculated to decrease the chances that the behavior will be repeated. When punishment is meted out impulsively and based on a spontaneous, angry reaction to behavior, it is less likely to be an effective deterrent to that behavior.




Controlling Behavior: Reward and Punishment. (2007, January 25). Retrieved January 12, 2012, from

Shea, J. (2008). Punishment Is an Ineffective Way to Control Behaviour. Retrieved January 12, 2012, from