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What Is Positive Punishment?

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Question: What Is Positive Punishment?

Positive punishment is a concept used in B. F. Skinner's theory of operant conditioning. The goal of punishment is to decrease the behavior that it follows. In the case of positive punishment, it involves presenting an unfavorable outcome or event following an undesirable behavior.

The concept of positive punishment can difficult to remember, especially because it seems like a contradiction. How can punishment be positive? The easiest way to remember this concept is to note that it involves an aversive stimulus that is added to the situation. For this reason, positive punishment is sometimes referred to as punishment by application.

Examples of Positive Punishment

  • You wear your favorite baseball cap to class, but are reprimanded by your instructor for violating your school's dress code.

  • Because you're late to work one morning, you drive over the speed limit through a school zone. As a result, you get pulled over by a police officer and receive a ticket.

  • Your cell phone rings in the middle of a class lecture, and you are scolded by your teacher for not turning your phone off prior to class.

Can you identify the examples of positive punishment? The teacher reprimanding you for breaking the dress code, the officer issuing the speeding ticket and the teacher scolding you for not turning off your cell phone are all examples of positive punishment. They represent aversive stimuli that are meant to decrease the behavior that they follow.

In all of the examples above, the positive punishment is purposely administered by another person. However, positive punishment can also occur as a natural consequence of a behavior. Touching a hot stove or a sharp object can cause painful injuries that serve as natural positive punishers for the behaviors.

Spanking as Positive Punishment

While positive punishment can be effective in some situations, B.F. Skinner noted that its use must be weighed against any potential negative effects. One of the best-known examples of positive punishment is spanking. Defined as striking a child across the buttocks with an open hand, this form of discipline is reportedly used by approximately 75 percent of parents in the United States.

Some researchers have suggested that mild, occasional spanking is not harmful, especially when used in conjunction with other forms of discipline. However, in one large meta-analysis of previous research, psychologist Elizabeth Gershoff found that spanking was associated poor parent-child relationships as well as with increases in antisocial behavior, delinquency and aggressiveness. More recent studies that controlled for a variety of confounding variables also found similar results.


Gershoff, E. T. (2002). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behavior and experiences: A meta-analysis and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-579.

Hockenbury, D., & Hockenbury, S. E. (2007). Discovering Psychology. New York, NY: Worth Publishers.

Taylor, C. A., Manganello, J. A., Lee, S. J., & Rice, J. C. (2010). Mothers' spanking of 3-year-old children and subsequent risk of children's aggressive behavior.. Pediatrics 125 (5): e1057?65.

Skinner, B. F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf.

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Kendra Cherry

Kendra Cherry
Psychology Guide

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