Reinforcement and Punishment in ABA: 3 Facts You Need to Know

Reinforcement and punishment occur naturally every day, influencing behavior without a plan. They are the foundation of learning, causing us to repeat some behaviors and not others. If you’re cold, the behavior of putting on a sweater receives reinforcement as your body feels more comfortable. Walking across the room in the dark is punished when you stub your toe. These contingencies also play a vital role in ABA programming. ABA practitioners intentionally arrange contingencies that are meant to reinforce or punish specific behavior. When done correctly learning occurs.

Professionals in the field of ABA must understand some basic facts about reinforcement and punishment to create effective behavior change programs. First, there are important differences between positive and negative reinforcement and punishment. Second, the professional must plan for unintended consequences associated with reinforcement and punishment. Finally, neither reinforcement nor punishment are inherently good or bad, ethical or unethical.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

The use of the words “positive” and “negative” when referencing reinforcement and punishment often creates confusion among individuals new to the field. The words positive and negative evoke the connotation of something good or bad, yet these ideas don’t apply here. Instead, the words positive and negative are more mathematical in nature. Positive is the addition of something and negative is the removal of something.

Although the distinctions appear somewhat academic in nature, it’s important to comprehend the terminology. Understanding the difference between positive and negative reinforcement and punishment allows us to discern controlling variables and communicate clearly with others in the field. The table below defines each type of reinforcement and punishment.

Defining Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

PositiveThe addition of a desired stimulus following a behavior that results in that behavior occurring more often (or with more intensity or for longer durations) in the future.The addition of an undesired stimulus following a behavior that results in that behavior occurring less often (or with less intensity or for shorter durations) in the future.
NegativeThe removal of an undesired stimulus following a behavior that results in that behavior occurring more often (or with more intensity or for longer durations) in the future.The removal of a desired stimulus following a behavior that results in that behavior occurring less often (or with less intensity or for shorter durations) in the future.

The above table offers a lot of language and jargon that often confuses novices. Here’s another way to look at it. The table below considers whether a stimulus was added or removed and the impact that has on the behavior to determine whether it is positive or negative reinforcement or punishment.

Behavior Increases Behavior Decreases
Stimulus addedPositive reinforcementPositive punishment
Stimulus removedNegative reinforcementNegative punishment

Want to learn more about the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement and punishment? Read our posts: Is the Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement and Punishment Necessary? and What I Wish I Knew About Positive and Negative Reinforcement.

Unintended Effects of Reinforcement and Punishment

Both reinforcement and punishment procedures present the opportunity for unintended effects on behavior. Professionals must plan for these possibilities prior to initiating interventions. You can mitigate some of these effects more easily than others and must carefully way the potential for harm against the potential benefits.

Behavioral contrast-behavior receiving reinforcement in one setting decreases in other settings where reinforcement is unavailableMay result in a higher rate of aggression
May lead to an increase in undesired or a decrease in other desired behaviors that are part of the same response classPunishment procedure may model inappropriate behavior to the individual
When access to a reinforcer is restricted, maladaptive behavior may escalatePunishment effects may provide negative reinforcement for the interventionist increasing the possibility of abuse
Learner may rely on extrinsic reinforcement if the schedule of reinforcement is not thinned to naturally occurring contingenciesUsually only effective in the presence of the punisher
Effects of immediate reinforcement contingencies may reduce other more desired behaviors that result in delayed reinforcementRisk of interventionist becoming a conditioned punisher
Reinforcement may lead to behavior that negatively impacts an individual’s health, safety, relationships, etc. (i.e. addiction)Punishment does not establish an alternative behavior so another undesired behavior may take its place

Example of Unintended Consequences of Reinforcement

Watch the video below for a common example of the use of reinforcement and identify any possible negative effects the parent might encounter as a result of using this intervention.

Although as a professional, you might recommend that Roy give Brad a reason to sit at the table. Do you see the potential for the following unintended consequences?

  • Brad stops eating lunch at school where reinforcement for sitting at the table is unavailable.
  • Brad begins to overeat, resulting in considerable rapid weight gain.
  • When Roy begins to restrict the tablet, making it only available at mealtime, Brad begins to hit Roy, demanding that he have it when he wants it.
  • Brad will only sit at the table if he has access to the tablet throughout the entire meal. As soon as the tablet is removed, he’s up and running again.
  • Even though Brad’s teacher uses a reinforcement system for Brad’s task completion at school, his willingness to sit to do schoolwork goes down since that reinforcer is significantly more delayed than the reinforcer he earns for sitting to eat at home.
  • Brad begins to find food so inherently reinforcing, especially foods high in carbohydrates, that he begins to demand more and more of these foods.

Knowing that the above unintended consequences are possible, would this change your recommendation to use reinforcement to encourage Brad to sit at the table to eat? Since it’s unlikely that there’s a simpler solution for Roy to implement at home, it’s probably still the best intervention for him to try. Identifying potential unintended effects allows you to plan for them.

Ethical Considerations of Reinforcement and Punishment

Positive reinforcement is often seen as the epitome of ethical practice in ABA. Similarly, punishment carries with it a stigma associated with control and abuse of power. In reality, these conditions occur naturally and neither are inherently good or bad. The distinction lies in the way these contingencies are applied by professionals.

Despite this fact, governing bodies insist on the implementation of reinforcement strategies before considering punishment procedures. In fact, the BACB’s Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts states:

4.08 Considerations Regarding Punishment Procedures.

(a) Behavior analysts recommend reinforcement rather than punishment whenever possible.
(b) If punishment procedures are necessary, behavior analysts always include reinforcement procedures for alternative behavior in the behavior-change program.
(c) Before implementing punishment-based procedures, behavior analysts ensure that appropriate steps have been taken to implement reinforcement-based procedures unless the severity or dangerousness of the behavior necessitates immediate use of aversive procedures.
(d) Behavior analysts ensure that aversive procedures are accompanied by an increased level of training, supervision, and oversight. Behavior analysts must evaluate the effectiveness of aversive procedures in a timely manner and modify the behavior-change program if it is ineffective. Behavior analysts always include a plan to discontinue the use of aversive procedures when no longer needed.

Misconceptions About the Ethics of Reinforcement and Punishment

This emphasis on reinforcement over punishment is intended to ensure a focus on teaching new skills, encouraging growth, taking a strength-based approach and avoiding power struggles or an abuse of power. This drive toward reinforcement procedures is an important one and not to be taken lightly, but it’s equally important to understand that reinforcement in and of itself is not good and there are ways to misuse it. Consider applying reinforcement to a behavior that is harmful to the individual. A reinforcement procedure is not necessarily ethical.

The same holds true for punishment procedures. Punishment, remember, is the addition or removal of a stimulus that reduces the future occurrence of that behavior. A child who asks to go home from school at 9:00 every morning and is denied this request repeatedly is likely to eventually reduce the frequency of this request. Refusing the child’s request is punishment if it reduces that requesting behavior. From an objective perspective, honoring that request might be the unethical thing to do.

In this video, Dr. Chris Manente discusses some common misconceptions about the ethics of reinforcement and punishment.

Reinforcement and punishment are often more complex than they initially appear. Many factors impact their effectiveness and even their ethical application. Carefully consider all potential risks and benefits associated with the use of these contingencies and become more aware of their presence in the natural environment.

References and Related Reading

Behavior Analyst Certification Board. (2014). Professional and ethical compliance code for behavior analysts. Littleton, CO: Author.

Fisher, W., Piazza, C., Cataldo, M., Harrell, R., Jefferson, G., & Conner, R. (1993). Functional communication training with and without extinction and punishment. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis26(1), 23-36.

Hanley, G. P., Piazza, C. C., Fisher, W. W., & Maglieri, K. A. (2005). On the effectiveness of and preference for punishment and extinction components of function‐based interventionsJournal of Applied Behavior Analysis38(1), 51-65.

Perone M. (2003). Negative effects of positive reinforcementThe Behavior analyst26(1), 1–14. doi:10.1007/bf03392064

Timberlake, W., & Farmer-Dougan, V. A. (1991). Reinforcement in applied settings: figuring out ahead of time what will workPsychological Bulletin110(3), 379.