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Theories of Punishment

Disruption Theory
• Skinner and Guthrie (and others)
thought that instinctive, often
emotional, reactions to aversive events
were simply incompatible with the
reinforced behavior.
• A shocked rat will engage in jump-freeze-run-
poop behavior
• This sequence of behaviors is incompatible with
lever pressing.
• Therefore lever pressing will temporarily decline
during this automatic response sequence.
Problems with Disruption
• Response competition alone is insufficient
to make punishment effective.
• When punishment is contingent on
behavior instead of just co-occurring at
random, it is much more effective.
• Random shocks do not produce the
punishing effects of contingent shocks,
even when the shocks occur with the same
Two Process Theory
• Two-process theory states that punishment
involves both classical (Pavlovian)
conditioning and operant conditioning.
– When a rat is shocked for pressing a lever, the
lever becomes a conditioned stimulus for pain
and fear.
• Lever : Shock  fear/pain
– As a result, the lever becomes aversive, and
the rat will avoid it, thus decreasing the rate of
lever pressing.
– This is a popular theory, but it is losing ground
to a one-process theory.
One Process Theory
– Also called the “Negative Law of Effect”
– This was Thorndike’s original view, before he
decided that punishment actually had no
effect on behavior.
– Originally, he argued that punishment was
simply the mirror image of reinforcement
– He suggested that punishment weakens the
previous established relationship between an
action and a reinforcer (a previously
established neurological S-R bond is
One Process Theory
• Problem with this theory:
– Skinner’s finding that suppression of behavior is sometimes
only temporary contradicts this.

– Why would a weakened S-R bond regain its strength over time
under conditions of extinction?
One Process Theory
• More recent research, however, has
shown that punishment can have
dramatic, lasting effects on behavior
– Skinner and Thorndikes stimuli were too
• Supporters of one-process theory say that if
reinforcement is just a mirror image of
reinforcement, then the Premack Principle
should apply to punishment as well as
• Original Premack: Eat your spinach, then
I’ll let you eat your cake.
Premack and Punishment
• If punishment is just another form of operant
conditioning, then a less preferred behavior should be
able to punish a more preferred behavior.
• Premack for Punishment: If you eat your cake, I’ll make
you eat a plate of spinach.
• Much research conforms that the Premack Principle
applies to punishment as well as to reinforcement.
• Mazur (1975): Hungry rats will reduce the rate pressing
a lever for food (a preferred behavior) if the rat is also
made to run in a wheel (less preferred) after eating.
Problems with Punishment
• Some common side effects of punishment:
• Punishment is aversive and threatening, so it can
lead to fight or flight responses.
• Flight: Escape/Avoidance
– People and other organisms will simply avoid the
punisher or the punishing situation.
• Fight: Aggression (as with extinction)
– Attacking. An eye for an eye, revenge, etc.
– After being shocked, rats will attack other rats and
More Problems with
• Apathy: Sometimes an organism will
simply stop behaving (period) if
punishment is severe enough.
– Seligman’s learned helplessness theory
of depression.
• Imitation of Punisher: Punishment
can become a tradition.
• Punitive Managers have subordinates
who become punishers.
Alternatives to Punishment
• Differential Reinforcement
– DR0 – differential reinforcement of zero responding
• Reinforce the organism when it goes for a period without
engaging in the behavior at all.
– DRL – differential reinforcement of low rate
• Reinforce the organism when it shows a lower rate of the
unwanted behavior
– DRI – differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior
• Reinforce alternative behaviors that differ from, and are
incompatible with, the unwanted behavior.