The unintended effects of punishment – and reinforcement.

Photo by Pete Wright on Unsplash

By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

bSci21Media, LLC

Brett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA

Brett DiNovi & Associates

In a recent video from Brett DiNovi & Associates, Dr. Chris Manente, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst, asked the question “Is punishment appropriate?”.  In doing so, he framed punishment as a process with a certain symmetry to reinforcement.  To Dr. Manente, reinforcement and punishment are two sides of the same coin that can both present unintended behavioral effects if not monitored closely.

The common belief, says Manente, is that punishment is “bad” and reinforcement is “good” which can be overly simplistic.  Instead of looking at the two processes in absolute evaluative terms, we can look at the processes themselves and the risk factors involved.

Punishment procedures are intrusive and should be undertaken with caution.

The decision to use punishment procedures should not be made lightly, and should only be made after exhausting alternative, reinforcement-based, procedures.  Among the many potential side effects of using punishment are: higher rates of client aggression, the possibility that the punishment procedure itself could act as a model for inappropriate behavior for the client, and the possibiliity of punishment effects creating a contingency of negative reinforcement for the person delivering the punishment.

Reinforcement can produce undesireable effects, just like punishment.

Dr. Manente posed a question to his audience before his talk – “Is it ethical to use positive reinforcement to influence behavior?”.  The audience answerd with a resounding “yes.”  But he cautioned that reinforcement-based procedures can produce undesireable behavior if not used appropriately, just like those based on punishment. For example, he posited that learners can become overly dependent on programmed reinforcement contingencies at the expense of natural contingencies.  Additionally, the improper or inconsistent use of a reinforement procedure can inadvertently create an extinction condition.  In other words, if a previously reinforced behavior is no longer contacting reinforcement due to a treatment integrity oversight by the behavior analyst, he/she has inadvertently created an extinction condition and risks creating the opposite effects of what was intended by the program.

Be sure to check out the full video for more on this fascinating topic, and to subscribe to Brett DiNovi’s YouTube channel and him them know what you would like to see in future videos.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is the President and Founder of bSci21Media, LLC, which owns the top behavior analytic media outlet in the world, bSci21.org.  bSci21Media aims to disseminate behavior analysis to the world and to support ABA companies around the globe through the Behavioral Science in the 21st Century blog and its subsidiaries, bSciEntrepreneurial, bSciWebDesign, bSciWriting, bSciStudios and the ABA Outside the Box CEU series.  Dr. Ward received his PhD in behavior analysis from the University of Nevada, Reno under Dr. Ramona Houmanfar.  He has served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and as an Editorial Board member of Behavior and Social Issues.  Dr. Ward has also provided ABA services to children and adults with various developmental disabilities in day centers, in-home, residential, and school settings, and previously served as Faculty Director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Dr. Ward is passionate about disseminating behavior analysis to the world and growing the field through entrepreneurship. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org

Brett DinoviBrett DiNovi, M.A., BCBA has the unique and distinguished experience of studying the principles of applied behavior analysis under the rigorous scrutiny of both Dr. Julie S. Vargas (formerly Skinner) and Dr. E.A. Vargas at West Virginia University’s internationally recognized program. For the past 26 years, Brett has used behavior analytic principles to create large scale change across school districts, Fortune 500 companies using principles of Organizational Behavior Management (OBM), and across individual learners. Brett has been a OBM consultant in Morgantown WV, an instructor at West Virginia University, a guest lecturer at numerous universities, a speaker on multiple Comcast Newsmakers TV programs, an expert witness in due process hearings, has publications in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, and has been in in executive leadership positions across schools and residential programs nationwide. In addition to an award from South Jersey Biz Magazine for “Best Places to Work,” an award for “Best of Families” in Suburban Magazine, and the distinguished “Top Ranked U.S. Executives” award, Brett’s proudest accomplishment is being a role model and father for his daughter and two stepchildren (one of which has autism). Brett can be reached at brett@brettdassociates.com

1 Comment on "The unintended effects of punishment – and reinforcement."

  1. Marie-France Akinrolabu | December 6, 2017 at 12:02 pm | Reply

    Is punishment appropriate? The question is overrated. Admittedly,one encounters punishing yet natural contingencies on daily basis. I speed, I get a ticket. Immediate natural suppressive and punishing effect on my future behavior: I will think twice before speeding next time. Lesson learned! Cooper, Heron & Heward (2007) do warn that “punishment is not about punishing the person” (p. 327) but that it is, rather, about lessening the likelihood of the re-occurrence of a specific behavior. The target is the behavior, not the person. Interestingly, Skinner (1976) warns against confusing “punishment” with “aversive control” or “negative reinforcement (p. 68). The sole purpose of punishment, he posits, is to reduce the likelihood that one will engage in the same behavior(s) in the future. He also argues that only “excessive punishment” (p.70) is inappropriate because it is uses too wide of a brush. This, according to him, leads to a concomitant decrease in the access to positive reinforcement and to the untoward collateral of punishing the person, and the world within his skin (p.24), instead.

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