Reward and Punishment

Reward and Punishment







Rewards and punishment are tools that have been used by psychologists over time to shape behavior in human beings. The terms reward and punishment fall under a psychological theory known as operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a theory developed by B.F Skinner to explain behavior formation. Skinner suggests in his theory that giving a reward to a subject or punishing a subject for undesired behavior can be used to cultivate the desired behavior in the subject. He also indicated that one has to follow a specific procedure for rewards and punishments if they are to be effective. Concisely, the concept of operant conditioning, which involves rewards and punishment, has been used by both professionals in different fields to obtain desired behavior in their subjects.


Reward and Punishment

A reward, according to psychologists, is the action of giving a response that encourages a subject to continue with a desired behavior. Rewards are also known as reinforcements since their main goal is to foster desired behavior. Punishment, on the other hand, is giving a response that discourages a subject from continuing with an undesired behavior. It can also be defined as a response that causes an undesired behavior to reduce in frequency of occurrence. Teachers are among the professionals who use this kind of conditioning to shape behavior of their students.

Psychologists believe that the behavior and not the subject is what should be shaped. For this reason, it is encouraged that one tells the subject in advance that it is the behavior and not the personality that is being punished or rewarded (Cerutii, 2009). In addition, those practicing operant conditioning on their subjects are encouraged to follow a specific pattern to avoid redundancy of the procedure. To this effect, operant conditioning is classified into different forms of punishment and rewards. These forms of rewards or reinforcement and punishment are discussed below.

Forms of Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement refers to the act of giving a reward to encourage the repeat of a desired behavior. For example, a teacher may give sweets to a student who answers a question correctly. This action is meant to encourage the student to continue giving correct answers. The same action is repeated until the target behavior is formed in the subject (Cerutii, 2009).

Negative reinforcement is the act of removing an offensive stimulus to encourage the desired behavior to develop. In skinners case, it involves the introduction of a loud noise in a rat cage until the rat develops the desired behavior. Removing the loud noise after the rat projects desired behavior is supposed to encourage the rat to continue with the right behavior or else the offensive stimulus, which is the noise, will be re-introduced (Gibbon, 2009).

Positive Punishment is also called punishment. It refers to a situation whereby a negative stimulus is increased to discourage an undesired behavior. For example, a student may be canned for stealing. The action of canning is what is referred to as positive punishment or simply punishment (Gibbon, 2009). This is unlike negative reinforcement, which entails removing the undesired stimuli once the subject achieves the desired behavior. In punishment, there is no removal of offensive stimuli.

Negative Punishment is the act of removing a stimulus to encourage the desired behavior to develop. For instance, a parent may take way a child’s toys until they start getting good grades in school. It is only after the child brings good grades that they will be given back the toys. The act of re-introducing toys after the desired behavior is known as negative reinforcement. Therefore, the child will strive to maintain good grades to avoid the negative stimuli of taking away the toys (Cerutii, 2009).

Extinction is a term used to refer to the period when a reinforcement stops being effective. For example, a child can start crying expecting that they will be given food. Every time the child cries, food is provided. To change this behavior, every time the child cries no food is given. Eventually, the child will stop crying once they realize that no food is forthcoming after crying. This means that the crying has become extinct since it no longer elicits a response. In the same case, one can say that a behavior has become extinct when the subject completely stops an undesired behavior to avoid negative stimuli (Gibbon, 2009).




Rewards (also called reinforcements) and punishments are aimed to cultivate the desired behavior in a subject. These two have been used as effective tools of behavior enhancement. The different forms of rewards and punishment are meant to make the mind adaptive to certain behaviors. Therefore, both rewards and punishment can be exploited with equal success provided that one understands how they work. If the concept behind punishment is misused, it can lead to redundancy. This is whereby the tools stop working to shape behavior. In worst case scenarios, misusing rewards and punishments can lead to encouraging undesired behavior. It can also lead to one having difficulty in correcting behavior since the subject will grow accustomed to the same such that the overall purpose is lost.


Cerutii, S. (2009). Department of psychological and brain sciences. Duke University .

Gibbon, L. (2009). Autoshaping and conditioning theory. New York: Academic Press.