Punishment Supports Behaviour?

Updated: Nov 18, 2020

"the resultant punishment has not led to the removal of the value the organism places on the stimulus"

I love learning and the best learning seems to create struggle.

In February I attended the WOOF 2019 conference and lucky enough to hear Julie Vargas, daughter of B.F. Skinner, speak. Over the past few weeks I have been writing out my notes from the event and reflecting on this quote from Julie's final talk:

"Punishment cannot remove reinforcement"

Firstly, I posted this quote online for the learning community to comment on. Their intelligent comments provoked more questions and the search for more understanding.

As dog trainers we talk about the '4 quadrants'. Positive and Negative Reinforcement, Positive and Negative Punishment. After learning these existed there was the typical struggle of understanding that these are not value labels such as 'good' or 'bad'. For example:

  • 'Bad' behaviour such as car chasing, may persist and is therefore being reinforced by the presentation of a moving vehicle.

  • 'Good' behaviour such as coming back when called, may persist but has a history of punishment behind it, the dog may not dare to do anything else.

There was also the struggle of learning that when a trainer says a behaviour has been punished, they are not implying that they have applied an aversive training procedure. This was especially difficult as my training journey began when aversive techniques and equipment were the norm in pet dog training.

It appears from my research that Skinner didn't use the four quadrants, instead he only worked with two, positive and negative reinforcement. Positive and negative punishment were derivatives of reinforcement, rather than their own processes. Although difficult, I think this background information helps us better understand the quote.

Struggling to put a complex topic into a simple context but here goes.

Any stimulus that increases behaviour is serving as a reinforcer. If the stimulus is presented to increase behaviour, then we label it a positive reinforcer, if it removed we label it a negative reinforcer.

If the stimulus we have labelled a positive or negative reinforcer is of value or is aversive to the dog then they will seek to avoid its removal or presentation.

If the positive reinforcer is removed then negative punishment results and if the negative reinforcer is presented then positive punishment is the result.

In both these cases the resultant punishment has not led to the removal of the value the organism places on the stimulus. Therefore it is more likely that the punishment will promote or support alternative behaviours that lead to reinforcement. The risk is that these alternative behaviours may be unexpected, uncomfortable and even more difficult to live with.

The community came up with some great examples of dog behaviour that had continued or was likely to continue even if a punishment procedure was used. Do you have any examples to add?

Resource: www.baquaterly.com

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