Punishment versus Negative Reward

az101There are two ways of changing behavior that involve using negative (unpleasant or undesirable) interventions. One is punishment, which we are all fairly familiar with, and the other is negative reward, which many of us may not have heard of.

Studies looking at these two approaches to changing behavior consistently find that, while punishment may work in the short run, it is often not effective in the long run and, it may have a number of negative effects. On the other hand, negative reward is an extremely powerful intervention, that seems to have few adverse effects.

Punishment is something that happens after the person does something undesirable. Punishments tends to be of the same magnitude regardless of the action. Punishments generally either yes or no, black or white. Punishments also don’t give the person who is being punished an immediate opportunity to change things in a positive way. Punishments also are linked to potential disruptions of the relationship since they are often associated with anger on both sides. Examples of punishment might include:

  • Shout at someone who has gotten drunk and tell them that they have to go to their room and stay there all night.
  • Tell someone who has been caught spending time with another drug user that you are not going to let them take a promised trip.

Negative Reward involves withdrawing a reward, something that is positive, when a person is acting in a negative way. The reward is then reintroduced as soon as the desired behavior resumes. The focus is on the action that the person needs to take in order to reestablish the relationship. Thus the implication of a negative reward tends to be much more positive. Examples of a negative reward would include:

  • Not helping a person by driving them around if they are using substances.
  • Not listening with interest to difficulties that someone is experiencing when they are intoxicated.
  • Not letting someone watch television if they are not looking for work.

As you can tell, the difference is often relatively minor… in both cases something positive may be taken away… but negative reward focuses on the temporary nature of the withdrawal and gives a person an immediate way to change behavior so that the reward is resumed.