Punishment is a process through which “the consequence of a response decreases the likelihood that the response will recur” (Gray, 2002, pp.115). Further, punishment can be seen as an effort to decrease the response rate to stimuli by either removing a desired stimulus or presenting one which is undesired (Gray, 2002). Recent studies suggest that punishment can be an effective method of behaviour modification. However, as reported in Lerman and Vorndran (2002), there are a number of limitations to punishment as an intervention and subsequent negative side effects. For this reason, certain principles upon which the implementation of a successful punishment is dependent must be adhered to. In accordance to these findings, this essay will contend that whilst there are alternative means to operant conditioning, certain punishment techniques have been proven to be effectual and in some aspects advantageous.
The effectiveness of punishment
“Punishment is one of the most used, but least understood and badly administered, aspects of learning” (Luthans, 1977, pp.300). As mentioned earlier, punishment is anything which weakens behaviour and tends to decrease it in subsequent frequency. Positive punishment is the method of administering negative consequences upon the occurrence of an action whereas Negative punishment involves the termination of positive consequences. In order to work, either case must weaken and decrease the behaviour which preceded the application or withdrawal of the stimuli. Skinner (1953) stipulated that we must defy the urge to label a form of stimuli as “desired” or “undesired” as a whole but rather to identify them by their effect on the observed subject.
Whether punishment is effective depends on the criteria applied or the objectives to be achieved. That is, before we can say it is useful we must ask whether we desire an immediate or a lasting effect, and at how high a cost. There is some evidence to suggest that when punishment is administered in the form of aversive stimulation, it acts to suppress behaviour temporarily. When it is withdrawn, the punished behaviour rapidly gains strength. If the punishment is more severe and given consistently, it may act to suppress behaviour for a longer period of time (Skinner, 1953). Historically, the efficacy of punishment has been appreciated only in the past few decades. Early experimentation with punishment was restricted by a reluctance to inflict pain. For this reason, experimenters such as Skinner and Thorndike either chose not to resort to punishment or to implement relatively minor stimuli as punishers. These constrained techniques allowed for the eventual return of the performance that was being disciplined, once the punishment was discontinued. However due to the recent use of more intense punishers, proof of the effectiveness of punishment has emerged, thus reversing the prior negative conclusions (Lieberman, 2000).