Some misbehaviors require an immediate remedy—for instance, they might interfere significantly with classroom learning or reflect total disregard for other people’s rights and welfare. In such cases we cannot simply wait for gradual improvements over time. Consider this student as an example:

Bonnie doesn’t handle frustration very well. Whenever she encounters an obstacle that she cannot immediately overcome, she responds by hitting, punching, kicking, or breaking something. One day, during a class Valentine’s Day party, she accidentally drops her cupcake upside down on the floor. When she discovers that the cupcake is no longer edible, she throws her carton of milk across the room, hitting another child on the side of the head.

Bonnie’s troublesome behaviors are difficult to extinguish because they aren’t being reinforced, not extrinsically at least. They are also behaviors with no obvious incompatible responses that can be reinforced. And we can reasonably assume that Bonnie’s teacher has already cued her about her inappropriate behavior on many occasions. When other strategies are inapplicable or ineffective, punishment may be a useful alternative.

Earlier  we defined a reinforcer as a consequence that increases the frequency of a particular behavior. In contrast, punishment is a consequence that decreases the frequency of the response it follows.

All punishing consequences fall into one of two categories. Presentation punishment involves presenting a new stimulus, presumably something a learner finds unpleasant and doesn’t want. Scoldings and teacher scowls, if they lead to a reduction in the behavior they follow, are instances of presentation punishment. Removal punishment involves removing an existing stimulus or state of affairs, presumably one a learner finds desirable and doesn’t want to lose. Loss of a privilege, a fine or penalty (e.g., the loss of money or previously earned points), and grounding (i.e., restriction from certain pleasurable outside activities) are all examples of removal punishment.

Over the years I have often seen or heard people use the term negative reinforcement when they are really talking about punishment. Remember, negative reinforcement is reinforcement, which increases a response, whereas punishment has the opposite effect.

Strictly speaking, punishment is not a part of operant conditioning. Many early behaviorists believed that punishment was a relatively ineffective means of changing behavior—it might temporarily suppress a response but could never eliminate it—and suggested that teachers focus their efforts on reinforcing desirable behaviors rather than punishing undesirable ones. More recently, however, behaviorists have found that some forms of punishment can be quite effective in reducing problem behaviors and are especially useful when students appear to have little motivation to change their behavior.