Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Negative Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Positive reinforcement is an easy concept to understand, but negative reinforcement is a widely misunderstood term. This is because many people confuse the term negative reinforcement with punishment. However, negative reinforcement is not the same as punishment. Negative reinforcement involves the removal of something aversive, and it strengthens behavior. Punishment, on the other hand, is the presentation or removal or something that causes behavior to decrease.

Furthermore, positive punishment is the presentation of something which causes a decrease in behavior (i.e. spanking) and negative punishment is the removal of something that results in a decrease of behavior (i.e. loss of a privilege). Once people realize that, technically, there are two kinds of punishment (positive punishment and negative punishment) just like there are two kinds of reinforcement (positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement), it becomes easier to remember that negative reinforcement is different than punishment.

In this article I want specifically to focus on the differences between negative reinforcement and punishment. In everyday terms, negative reinforcement is the removal of something “bad” which leads to the child repeating a certain behavior. Punishment is when something “bad” is given to the child or something “good” is taken away, which discourages a child from repeating a particular behavior.

Let’s look at some examples negative reinforcement:

  1. 1. Sammy’s mom nags him to clean up his room after school. Sammy is so annoyed by his mom’s nagging that the next day after school, he goes straight to his room and cleans it up to avoid hearing her complain. The avoidance of a stimulus (nagging) is what motivated Sammy to clean his room.
  2.  Sammy is asked to complete his math homework. He refuses and throws his book across the room. His dad picks up the book and says, “Ok. You don’t have to do math right now.” In the future, Sammy will throw his book again because he knows if he does, he will not have to do his math homework! Sammy’s dad has negatively reinforced Sammy’s behavior. This is negative reinforcement because the removal of math homework causes Sammy to continue throwing his books.

In negative reinforcement, the occurrence of a behavior (i.e. throwing books) results in the removal of something the child does not like (i.e. math homework), and this leads to an increase in that behavior (throwing books).

Now let’s look at some examples of punishment:

  1. Sammy uses a bad word. His mom washes his mouth out with soap. Now Sammy doesn’t use that word anymore! This is punishment because it caused Sammy to stop using an offensive word.
  2. At the zoo Sammy sticks his finger in the bird cage and a bird bites him. Next time he goes to the zoo, he does not stick his finger in the bird cage. This is an example of punishment because the bite caused Sammy to stop putting his finger in the cage.
  3. At summer camp, Sammy hits his peers (when he wants a toy someone else is playing with). When Sammy hits, his teacher sends him to timeout. As a result Sammy is no longer hitting his peers. Time out is an effective punishment for Sammy.

As you can see, negative reinforcement increases a behavior, but punishment stops a behavior or causes it to decrease. 


Reinforcement means behavior is strengthened.

Punishment means behavior is weakened.

The term positive means something is given or presented to the child.

The term negative means something is removed or postponed.

In ABA, we combine these words to come up with the terms positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment

The easiest way to keep these terms straight is to remember that there are two main categories: reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement, whether positive or negative, strengthens behavior. Punishment, positive or negative, causes behavior to decrease.

Please keep in mind that punishment, in and of itself, does not teach a child appropriate alternative behavior. Punishment only teaches a child what not to do! If punishment for undesired behavior is necessary in an ABA program, it is very important to combine it with reinforcement for desired behavior. This is because we learn new behavior through reinforcement, not punishment.