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Reinforcement vs. Punishment

Updated: Jan 26, 2023

Did you know we use reinforcement and punishment all of the time, not just in ABA therapy?

Reinforcement and punishment are used everywhere to shape our own behaviors. In ABA therapy sessions with autistic clients, reinforcement is used more so than punishment because behavior analysts and RBTs (Registered Behavior Technicians) are focused on strengthening behaviors that are beneficial in an autistic individual's life, such as social, communication, and daily living skills. Punishment teaches what kind of behaviors not to use daily. In the education system, teachers rely on punishment the most because students must follow classroom expectations. Of course, educators provide reinforcement when a student raises their hand to answer a question, but punishment is still relied on for students demonstrating behaviors of property destruction, touching others, etc. As an autistic RBT who graduated last year with a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology with concentration in ABA, I will break down the difference between reinforcement and punishment deeper.

There are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement means providing something in order to increase the likelihood of a behavior to occur more often. For example, my parents used to give an allowance after I would complete my chores for the day at home during my middle school years. Negative reinforcement means taking away something to increase likelihood of a behavior occurring more often. For instance, a teacher eliminates homework for the night after students accomplished a lot of work in class today. If this happens from the teacher, then students would be more productive in the classroom. All in all, reinforcement means a behavior increases due to an intervention.

Not only are there two types of reinforcement, but there are also two types of punishment: positive and negative. Positive punishment is adding something to decrease a behavior from occurring. For instance, a parent yelling at their child for bad behavior. Negative punishment is removing something pleasant or desirable from an individual to decrease a behavior from occurring. For example, a child named Kevin got a bad grade on their recent test. As a result, his parents took away his electronics. After this occurrence, Kevin will no longer get bad grades on tests in school. In sum, punishment means a behavior decreases due to an intervention.

Based on these contingencies, they are all followed after a behavior occurs. Now which kind of approach should be used? It depends on the context of the situation and things in the environment that trigger the behavior. Now how does reinforcement and punishment occur in your life everyday? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section!


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