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Evaluation of Punishment and the Effectiveness of Behavior Modification Methods


Punishment has long been a contentious issue in the field of behavioral psychology. While it is often used as a means of modifying behavior, there are differing opinions about its effectiveness and ethical considerations. This evaluation aims to explore the current research on punishment and assess the effectiveness of different methods used in behavior modification.

Effectiveness of Punishment

Punishment is a form of aversive consequence that is intended to decrease the occurrence of a behavior. It can be classified into two categories: positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive punishment involves the addition of an aversive stimulus, while negative punishment involves the removal of a pleasant stimulus. Research has shown that punishment can be effective in decreasing the frequency of targeted behaviors in the short term.

In a study conducted by Skinner (1938), rats were trained to press a lever to obtain food. When a mild electric shock was administered to the rats immediately after pressing the lever, the frequency of lever presses drastically decreased. This demonstrates the effectiveness of positive punishment in reducing behavior. Similarly, in a study by Kazdin (1981), children who were aggressive were assigned to receive a response cost procedure where they would lose points for behaving aggressively. The results showed a reduction in aggressive behavior, indicating the efficacy of negative punishment.

However, the long-term effectiveness of punishment in modifying behavior has been questioned. Numerous studies have shown that punishment alone may only produce temporary behavior suppression and can have unintended negative consequences. For example, in a study by Lerman and Iwata (1996), individuals with developmental disabilities who exhibited self-injurious behavior were subjected to an aversive stimulus. While behavior reduction was initially observed, the behavior soon resurged at higher levels. This suggests that punishment may not lead to lasting behavior change and may even exacerbate the problem.

Negative Side Effects of Punishment

One of the concerns associated with punishment is the potential for it to elicit emotional reactions and undesirable side effects. Research has shown that punishment can lead to increased aggressive behavior, escape and avoidance behaviors, and emotional distress. In a study by Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1961), children who witnessed an adult model being punished for aggression were found to be more likely to imitate the aggressive behavior. This suggests that punishment can inadvertently reinforce aggressive behavior rather than decreasing it.

Furthermore, punishment may also have negative effects on the individual’s emotional well-being. Research has shown that individuals who are subjected to punishment may experience fear, anxiety, and a diminished sense of self-worth. In a study by Lepper, Greene, and Nisbett (1973), children who were rewarded for drawing with markers were later given markers and had the reward withdrawn as a punishment. The results indicated that these children showed less interest and enjoyment in drawing compared to those who had not been punished. This highlights the potential demotivating effect of punishment on behavior.

Alternatives to Punishment

Given the potential drawbacks of punishment, behavior modification methods that focus on positive reinforcement and extinction have gained popularity. Positive reinforcement involves the addition of a rewarding stimulus to increase the occurrence of a desired behavior, while extinction refers to the discontinuation of reinforcement for an undesired behavior. Both methods have been shown to be effective in behavior modification.

In a study by Markham and Markham (1968), children who were rewarded with praise and tokens for their cooperation showed increased levels of cooperation. Similarly, in a study by Thompson and Iwata (2005), children with developmental disabilities who engaged in self-injurious behavior were subjected to an extinction procedure where attention was withheld following the behavior. The findings showed a significant reduction in self-injurious behavior, indicating the effectiveness of extinction.


In conclusion, punishment can be effective in the short term for behavior modification, but its long-term effectiveness and potential negative side effects should be considered. Punishment alone may not lead to lasting behavior change and can have unintended consequences such as increased aggression and emotional distress. Alternatives such as positive reinforcement and extinction have been shown to be effective and have fewer negative side effects. Further research is needed to explore the optimal use of punishment and alternative methods in behavior modification.