What is punishment? And does it work?

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What is punishment? And does it work?

-- Megan Henst (admin1cell@iprimus.com.au), March 28, 2004


Punishment is the application of an (aversive) stimulus in an effort to reduce the frequency of a behavior. (Or, more properly, a punishment just is any stimulus which, when applied, reduces the incidence of a given behavior). Accoding to the findings of most operant behaviorists, it doesn't work nearly as well as reinforcement.

-- Christopher Green (christo@yorku.ca), March 28, 2004.

Punishment ocurrs when a certain aversive stimulus is made contingent upon a certain behavior. Note the difference between punishment and negative reinforcement. In the latter the behavior is made contingent with the withdrawal of an aversive situation. As a consequence, negative reinforcement increases the probability of the behavior. Even tough punishment is not the "best" way to manage behavior, there are some ways to improve it succes. For example, the punisher should be in close temporal contiguity with the undesired action and care should be taken to take out any apetitive reinforcer of the enviroment.

-- Ricardo Marcos Pautassi (rpautassi@immf.uncor.edu), March 29, 2004.

Hi Megan, I think it is useful to distinguish between between different perspectives on punishment. I think the behaviorial perspective is represented in the first two email responses to your question, and it has been a quite useful and objective way of using terms like aversive stimulus, punishment, and negative reinforcement (and also quite effective). There are however, at least three other perspectives dealing with aversive events. One is the intrapsychic perspective, where the focus is on how the individual experiences the putative aversive event. For example, the same event may be experienced as more or less negative (even positively sometimes) depending on the context, history, or particular individual. This perspective may or may not deal with the relation between degree of consciousness of the event and its influence. The second perspective is the biological perspective, where interest is focused on various neurological and chemical systems (particularly in the brain) associated with external and/or cognitive aversive events. The third perspective is the evolutionary perspective, which focuses on the survival and/or reproductive functions of our responses to aversive events and the evolutionary history of these aversive events in shaping our species. Another controversial issue is how powerful are the long-term consequences of aversive stimuli. For operant conditioning using mild or moderate intensity aversive stimuli,some researchers (e.g. Skinner) have often found less effective than reinforcement in shaping behavior. However,we have to be careful generalizing such results. For example, with strong aversive stimuli (or sensitive individuals), aversive stimuli may have long-term operant effects and possible life-time respondent conditioning effects (e.g., nervousness in a certain type of environment). One theory in the field of emotion and clinical psycholgy, is that the amygdala never "forgets" a strong aversive experience, and can never (rarely?) be extinguish. It can only be partially or temporarily overriden by calming mechanisms in the brain. Historically, Solomon thought that until the 1950s or 1960s, punishment was under studied and its influence underestimated. Morally, we need to be aware that many people use aversive stimuli because of their powerful effects on the recipients or observers (i.e., controlling behavior and unpleasant experiences) and the user (controlling behavior and pleasant experiences). Also sometimes aversive stimuli are used for control because they are easier to learn or apply than reinforcement. I hope this helps. Paul

-- Paul Kleinginna (pkleinginna@georgiasouthern.edu), March 31, 2004.

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