Clarifying Permanence of Punishment

You have likely heard the word suppression used to describe the effects of punishment on the target behavior. You may also have heard some people scoff at this word because they believe punishment can permanently eliminate a behavior. I'd like to clarify that a bit.

Punishment as a postcedent intervention, on its own, merely adds one more contingency to a behavior/situation. The punishment procedure does not, on its own, in any way remove or change the existing reinforcement contingency prevailing on that behavior. That would be extinction but punishment does not include extinction at all. In practical matters, we do sometimes try to extinguish a behavior and punish it if we are under contingencies to address the problem with aversers, but this is not what the punishment process or procedure involves itself. To suggest that punishment can eliminate a behavior is to conflate punishment with punishment plus other processes. If a behavior is exhibited then it has a reinforcement history; that contingency is in place. When we impose a punishment contingency on that behavior, we merely add that contingency to the prevailing reinforcement contingency. If the reinforcer is stronger than the punisher then the behavior will continue to occur, although perhaps at a reduced rate or frequency. If the punishment is stronger than the reinforcer then the behavior will be suppressed to some extent, depending on just how much stronger it is. Indeed the behavior may be suppressed to a rate of zero. But, as soon as the punishment contingency is discontinued, the existing reinforcement contingency prevails again and the behavior is expected to return to pre- punishment strength. In fact, there is usually a brief increase in strength above the pre-punishment rate or frequency. There are different theories as to why but in any case, it is a common effect. The main point here is to note that punishment alone does not eliminate the behavior; it merely suppresses it to some extent while that contingency is in effect. If the behavior is permanently eliminated, it is not because of the punishment contingency alone. What would have occurred is likely extinction simultaneously imposed, or more commonly the suppression allowed for the performance and reinforcement of other behaviors. In that case, it was not the punishment that eliminated the behavior, it was the reinforcement of some other behavior that simply displaces the problem behavior. Punishment alone only suppresses behavior; it does not address the existing reinforcement contingency (like extinction would). Extinction is permanent, punishment is not.

Better, of course, is to implement positive reinforcement contingencies to change behavior.

by James O'Heare, CABC, CDBC, PABC


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Positively Expert: James O'Heare

James O'Heare, CABC, PABC, is the President of the Companion Animal Sciences Institute, Director of the Association of Animal Behavior Professionals, and editor of the Journal of Applied Companion Animal Behavior. James has studied psychology and animal behavior extensively, and has written many books on dog behavior.


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