When choosing a punishment, would you rather have something you enjoy taken away, or would you rather face an added consequence?

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You may not spend much time thinking about how punishment is structured. But when it comes to parenting, coaching, or training, the strategy may matter more than you think.

Punishment when rules get broken or expectations aren’t met might have an impact on your mental health.

Positive punishment happens when you add an unwanted consequence as a way to discourage certain behaviors.

It’s a type of behavior modification that comes from the method of learning known as operant conditioning, a process developed by behaviorist B.F. Skinner.

An example of positive punishment would be spanking your child for breaking something in the house. You’re “adding” the unwanted spanking as a consequence.

What’s the positive and negative about?

There are both positive and negative subtypes within behavior modification.

It’s helpful to know that positive and negative subtypes in these approaches don’t signify “good” or “bad.”

Positive in this case just means something is being added, and negative means something is being taken away.

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Negative punishment discourages behavior by taking away something desirable. An example would be restricting your child’s gaming time if they broke something in the house.

“Though it’s not always considered beneficial, positive punishment is a behavior modification,” explains Dr. Natalie Gwyn, who is based in Raleigh, North Carolina. “In essence, it’s when you want to deter unwanted behavior with a punishment.”

Difference between punishment and reinforcement

The difference between the behavior modification approaches lies in incentivizing or dissuading behaviors.

Punishments are reactive to discourage unwanted behaviors.

Reinforcement can either occur before, during, or after the behavior, but they focus instead on motivating a wanted behavior.

Punishment typeRemove something desirableProvide undesired consequenceDiscourage unwanted behaviors
positive punishment
negative punishment
Reinforcement typeRemove something undesirableProvide something desirableEncourage wanted behaviors
positive reinforcement
negative reinforcement

Benefits of punishment

Punishment may sound like a “bad” thing, but it has a place in the world of psychology.

Teaching acceptance of natural consequences and morality

Research suggests punishment is a part of learning. It can teach you about the relationship between actions and consequences.

Much of what you learn through life can come from natural punishment. If you eat something spoiled and get sick, for example, you might be more careful about checking expiration dates next time.

Punishment may also serve as a way to instill social norms and values into children.

According to what’s known as control theory, criminal behaviors are most likely to occur when immediate rewards like money, adventure, or fun outweigh the risks of being caught.

Administering small punishments throughout childhood may help teach morality and correct misbehavior. It might prevent the need for more serious punishments later in life, too.

Teaches cooperatation in a group setting

A 2008 study investigated the long-term effects of punishment within a group setting. Researchers found punishment increased group cooperation. Over time, the benefits of that cooperation for the group and the individual outweighed any punishments administered.

A 2017 study looked at how punishment affected trust from a leadership standpoint. Overall, leaders who punished consistently, fairly, and without a motive for revenge were trusted more than those who did not punish.

When you think about positive punishment, think about “adding” consequences.

Examples of positive punishment in the workplace

  • written warnings
  • extra work tasks
  • verbal lectures
  • special course requirements

Examples of positive punishment in the classroom

  • scolding
  • being sent to the principal’s office
  • detention
  • extra schoolwork

Examples of positive punishment in everyday adult life

  • late payment fees
  • speeding tickets
  • jail or prison time

Examples of positive punishment at home

  • additional chores
  • scolding
  • new rules
  • spanking

With regard to positive punishment for kids at home, there is more to understand (more on this next).

Corporal, or physical, punishment is one of the most well-known forms of positive punishment. It can take the form of spanking, grabbing, hitting, or shaking.

According to national survey data from 2014, as many as 37% of children in the United States are punished by spanking annually.

The same survey found this type of corporal punishment was directly linked to increased childhood aggression, delinquency, and antisocial behavior.

Similar findings were noted in a 2016 review that indicated the more often you spank a child, the more likely they are to:

  • be defiant
  • have increased aggression
  • exhibit antisocial behavior

“As with any type of punishment that parents or guardians use to deter behavior, mental health concerns can include increased fear, anxiety, or anger in some children,” Gwyn says.

Not all positive punishment is created equal

Physical consequences in some homes might be abusive. Public shaming might lead to anxiety and stress. Children may become fearful of being reprimanded.

Gwyn adds that kids’ individual personalities can also impact how they respond to positive punishment.

“Additionally, children, even those within the same household, can respond to punishment differently,” she cautions.

What might not embarrass one child might cause another to become withdrawn or reluctant to participate in activities.

Where punishment sometimes falls short

Learning the consequences of actions can be important, but punishment alone doesn’t always show what alternative behaviors might lead to better outcomes.

For this, Gwyn recommends supporting punishment, if you use it, with reinforcement methods to encourage positive behaviors while discouraging negative ones.

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What’s more effective: Positive or negative punishment?

“Both forms of punishment can be very effective if there’s a focus on the undesired behavior, rather than the child,” Gwyn notes.

To do this, she says, caregivers should engage in consistent behavior modification before determining one is better than the other.

“Keep in mind that all actions produce some sort of consequence,” Gwyn says. “Implementation of punishment, whether negative or positive, should be consistent and implemented immediately after the undesired behavior.”

Adding an undesired consequence to a behavior is known as positive punishment.

This form of behavior modification can show up in all stages of life. It can happen naturally (e.g., hot hand on a stove) or as the result of a deliberate process (e.g., paying late fees).

Corporal punishment is one of the most well-known forms of positive punishment, often given out in the form of spanking children.

While it may be effective in some situations, positive punishment can lead to negative mental health effects.

Caregivers, managers, and coaches can benefit from incorporating reinforcement, both negative and positive.