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Pros and Cons of Punishment and Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

Pros and Cons of Punishment and Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

The concept of operant conditioning advanced by Skinner aims at understanding how behaviors vary due to alterations in the environment.  Reinforcement and punishment help to understand the concept of operant conditioning. This paper delineates the theory behind the phenomenon “pros and cons of punishment and why reinforcement ‘beats’ punishment” and an example of how it can be used in training an animal.

 Reinforcement usually increases the frequency of the behavior that precedes it while punishment decreases the frequency of the behavior (Derenne & Baron, 2001). For instance, in reinforcing a person’s behavior, an individual may use money, praises, or rewards to make that person repeat the behaviors.  In case of animals, behaviors may be reinforced through incentives such as food. Workers receive pay for them to be motivated to come to work the next day. Negative reinforcement is also important because it allows the removal of unpleasant stimulus, hence, leading to increase in the probability to repeat a previous response in future.  On the other hand, punishment aims at decreasing the chances that a certain behavior will occur again which explains the fact that punishment suppresses behavior. This theory is also applicable to animals because they will exhibit certain behaviors depending on how they are treated.

A plan that a child can use to train an animal using these concepts in the theories is in a situation where a child want a pet such as a cat enclosed in a box to press a button. The cat at first will not press the button or the lever on its own. However, if it accidentally presses the liver and then a piece of meat drops, it will then press the liver for the second time. The cat again if it accidentally through default presses the liver and the meat drops it will repeat the behavior by pressing the button in quest to get the meat. This will get the cat to press the liver continuously until it gets satisfied. This is an indication the cat would have learned that getting food is dependent on pressing the liver. Therefore, a child could have trained the cat a behavior which it did not exhibit earlier. The concept behind this behavior is based on the reinforcement theory, which asserts that behaviors increases when reinforced.  In this situation, a child could not have reinforced the behavior of the cat using punishment as this is aimed at changing behavior. 

Punishment is used in conditioning but is not effective as reinforcement. However, punishment is the quickest way to change behaviors that if allowed might pose danger to individuals. It becomes effective in a situation where a parent may not be in a position to, for example, prevent a child against running into a busy street. It may also help to suppress an individual’s behavior by providing an opportunity to reinforce the same behaviors in future. This principle does not cut across all the animal families because of the difference environments that live. Most animals will not respond to change their behaviors through punishment.  For example when we apply the case of a cat and the pressing of a button, it is not possible to make the cat press the button by punishing it through physical harm or denial of food.

Punishment has a number of shortcomings as compared to reinforcement.  To have greater impact, it needs to occur immediately after committing undesired behavior, before a person leaves the setting that the punishment is administered. For instance, if a child is denied a car by his parents because of misbehaving, the child has other options such as borrowing a friend’s car. Similarly, in case an employer is reprimands an employee, that employee has the option to move to another job. Therefore, the essence of changing behavior does happen. If, in such cases, reinforcement could have been used, then the behaviors of the two could have been managed.

Therefore, the best way to reinforce the behaviors of individuals is through reinforcement. Enhancement and suppression of behaviors is done using appropriate stimulus that does not cause any psychological or physical harm.  A child is able to train a cat to press the button because of reinforcing the behavior as seen in this experiment discussed. Punishment will not provide positive results because it does not reinforce behaviors.

In conclusion, the concepts of reinforcement and punishment are essential in understanding how behaviors can be changed and modified.  As discussed, reinforcement is more effective compared to punishment in modifying behaviors, hence preferable.


Derenne, A., & Baron, A. (2001). Time-out punishment of long pauses on fixed-ratio schedules   of reinforcement. Psychological Record, 51(3):1-49.

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