Principles of Behavioural Analysis

Punishment is when a response is followed by a stimulus that suppresses the frequency of a response in the future and this stimulus is called the punisher. Bandura and Walters (1959) stated that children who are made to suffer grow up to be adults who make others suffer (as cited in Chance, 1999). They begin to deal with their problems in later life with troublesome behaviour and inflicting pain on others just like their punishers did to them when they were younger.

Skinner suggested that it is possible to construct a society in which punishable behaviours occur infrequently or never. ‘Basically if behavioural technology was used to control behaviour in nonpunitive ways, good behaviours would be common, and there would be little or no need for punitive measures’ (Nye, 1993, pg. 104). Skinner’s earliest work shows that punishment only has a temporary suppressive effect, rather than permanently decreasing responding.

Conclusions form Estes’ (1944) work shows that within limits more intense and frequent punishment produces greater response suppression providing that the punishment stimulus is reliable and immediately follows the response (as cited in Leslie, 1996, pg. 256). Misbehaviour persists in spite of punishment because it is also reinforced. This happens when the alternative of other behaviours are so daunting and unknown that they think they may receive more punishment for the behaviour they have already carried out. ‘Whenever we are punished, more and more elements of our environment can become negative reinforcers and punishers’ (Murray, 1989, pg 78).

We begin to react to most of the environments, things and people around us as ‘natural punishers’. Our societal environment becomes our punisher or as Murray phrases it ‘Anyone who uses shock becomes a shock’ (1989, pg 79). Also the punisher is reinforced for what they do. It is a sense of power for them, that they can control one’s behaviours by using coercion on them. Yes, this is a very bleak and maybe exaggerated view of how punishment can be and can evolve, but it is, unfortunately, not unknown.

The most reasonable objective in using punishment is to stop undesirable behaviour. It suppresses unwanted conduct, however, only for a short time and unfortunately brings along with it many side effects. There are numerous types of punishment used in our society toady and they basically fall into two main categories, positive and negative. Positive punishment occurs when the onset of aversive stimuli suppresses behaviours.

‘Negative reinforcement instils a narrow behavioural repertoire, leaving us fearful of novelty, afraid to explore’ (Murray, 1989, pg. 85). The forms punishment occurs in are physical, reprimands, time-out and response-cost. Piaget would surely disagree profusely with the methods and ideas we apply when we spank a child for its erroneous behaviour due to their apparent learning and awareness capacities. He believes that children think qualitatively different than adults.

A lot of Piaget’s views of the development of children are still extremely respected and in spite of a large amount of research criticising his views, none of his ideas were eradicated and still give great strength to the argument against punishment towards children. If the child has no sense of understanding and can’t see anything except from their own perspective, due to their egocentric processes, then nothing will be gained from slapping them but a parent’s guilt and a child’s hurt and fear and the future side effects all anti-punishment people know of such as future low grades, early school leavers, amplified aggression and some conduct problems.

So if our lives are full of it, is there any need for change. Is our society that bad? Yes, due to the pitfalls of coercion and in this there are many. One of the main being reinforcement of the punisher. With the excessive use of punishment comes the reinforcing and shaping of the coercer. If a child is slapped for throwing a ball in the house that behaviour will stop, but as it was suppressed it will occur again.

So, the parent will give the child another slap, but this time one slap doesn’t work thus a harder punishment is employed. This evolves and eventually a slap will more than likely have lead to a punch to the child, all for throwing a ball. It is shaped and reinforced. They become conditioned punishers and others will fear them. If one is to slap their child on a continual basis, they will eventually fear and loathe their parents’ presence. The pain the child feels when being slapped will also be there when the parent is acting in a neutral fashion, even a loving one.

Another side effect is that of escape. Punishers suppress actions that produce it, but it also generates escape as one of its side effects. One tries to escape from the stimulus that is giving the punishment such as daydream in a lecture they are not enjoying. It takes place within an environmental context and we eventually learn the signals for contingencies. Places where we experience negative reinforcement become negative reinforcers themselves along with those who punish us.

So, control by negative reinforcement makes the environment coercive. If then, parents slap their children, they will do their best to escape the environment. Young children may run away, or exhibit as little emotional and physical contact towards their mother/father/carer as is possible. Other escape routes include ‘tuning out’ and ‘dropping out’. Only by recognising the existence of coercive pressures are we going to solve the ultimate, inevitable dropout and tuning out problems.

Through avoidance, we don’t, like escape wait for the shocks to happen and then ignore them. We move away from the stimulus. It keeps an unwanted event from happening and if successful, keeps away shocks, making escape unnecessary. But it takes time for all of our actions to be related to shocks. ‘Parents who consider punishment the only way may tae several years to shock all of their children’s undesirable actions, leaving them ‘behaving’ at home simply because nothing else is safe’ (Murray, 1989, pg. 120).

They do this at home because it is the way in which they will prevent any form of punishment from happening. By a child having to use avoidance to prevent punishment, this is also showing side effects of punishment. Once a child has learned how to avoid severe punishment, be it by running away, crying or the like, escape automaticity becomes even more reinforcing. The child will learn not to do this in situations his parents will also be, or in situations they may hear about.

Escape and avoidance may be an explanation for the ‘early school leaving’ among children who are punished extensively when they are young. They want to escape and avoid the environment they are being punished in. Even if it has stopped by adolescence, if it was severe enough then the shocks will still be there for them (‘Anyone who uses shock becomes shock’ Murray, 1989, pg. 79). As they will not be able to move out of home quickly while they are still in school because of financial reasons, they may leave school to get money, to live away from their family home. Leaving school early because they want to escape and avoid the shocks is the end result. All this is then due to their parents’ poor knowledge of the effective use of punishment.

Using extinction to get rid of unwanted behaviour requires first of all identifying the reinforcers that maintain the behaviour. Parents need to look at why the child is doing what he is, what he gets from carrying out the actions he does, this may be the root cause of many. An assumption, which can be made here, is that if when a child is bold and gets slapped the parents will feel guilty and consequently show more affection to the child. Or an older sibling/other parent may show more affection and warmth. This may be the reinforcer for the child, not anything he gets from carrying out the action, but just that he craves attention and love.

If one cannot escape or avoid punishment then what is likely to happen is that they will experience aggression or empathy. One’s aggression may not always be directed towards the punisher (e.g. industrial sabotage). From the perspective of this essay, the child may displace his anger to his siblings, peers or even the teachers at schools as he may see them as his ‘parents’ due to their age, supervisory capacity and stature in their environment. Consequently, they will receive more punishment from their parents and so they are pushed towards apathy where they have no feelings or emotions.

Although punishment is clearly effective in controlling behaviour for a certain amount of time, it has serious drawbacks, which were mentioned above. The alternatives are DRI (differential reinforcement of incompatible responding) and DRO (differential reinforcement zero responding). DRI allows us to be positive in reducing the presence of an inappropriate behaviour. In DRI, we reinforce behaviours that will prevent the display of the undesirable behaviour ( We try to reward good behaviours that will in turn stop the undesirable from occurring. If a parent is trying to keep a child quiet while there are visitors, then instead of slapping them then they may give the child something to do such as paint a picture. Then the child will receive attention from both his parents and the visitors after it is completed.

The child may be punished for not behaving properly while the visitors are there, but he is also being reinforced with love and attention for good behaviours. DRI can be applied in the way that there is no punishment used. A child is reinforced for only their good behaviours. Much behaviour is only a problem if they occur at a high rate. A procedure known as differential reinforcement of low rate (DRL) is used. Luiselli (1985) used DRL to reduce aggressive behaviour in a adolescent girl. Over a period of a few days, the procedure produced a reduction in aggressive acts of over 90% (as cited in Chance, 1999). However, the pure research carried out in this area does not come to an unwavering conclusion.

Certain conditions are needed for findings to be credible-the main being the separation of harsh and abusive punishment to mild and ordinary forms. One cannot generalize both. Still, when so many conclusions have been come to then should we not reassess the methods we apply in teaching children right and wrong. If even only some of the results are accurate, then it is needed for our society to become the utopia Skinner always desired.


Bee, Helen. (2000). The developing child. 9th Edition. London: Allyn & Bacon.

Chance, Paul. (1999). Learning and Behaviour. London: Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Leslie, Julian C. (1996). Principles of Behavioural Analysis. United Kingdom: Harwood Academic Publishers

Murray, Sidman. 1989. Coercion and its fallout.

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