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Positive Punishment in Psychology: Definition + 12 Examples

By | Courtney Ackerman | Researcher for the State of California | Sourced from

You might be thinking that “positive punishment” sounds like an oxymoron, or perhaps that it sounds like something very “adult” that is not generally discussed in polite company.

After all, how can punishment be positive? No one likes punishment, right (those associated with the second point above notwithstanding)?

The disconnect in understanding this concept comes from the usage of the word “positive;” here at the Positive Psychology Program, we generally use the word “positive” to refer to things that are inherently good, things that are life-giving, and things that promote thriving and flourishing.

The concept of positive punishment comes from a very different era and a very different perspective on psychology; namely, the 1930s and behaviorism.

Read on to learn what positive punishment actually is and how it relates to parenting, teaching, and even the workplace.

This article contains:

What is Positive Punishment in Psychology?

Positive punishment is one of four methods of modifying behavior according to the theory of operant conditioning. The four types are:

  • Positive punishment
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative punishment
  • Negative reinforcement

These methods are categorized on two factors:

  1. Whether you are trying to encourage (reinforcement) or discourage (punishment) behavior.
  2. Whether you are adding something to influence behavior (positive) or taking something away to influence behavior (negative).

Although it can be difficult to see “positive” as discouraging behavior and “negative” as encouraging behavior, it’s easy to catch on when you realize that, when it comes to operant conditioning, the terms “positive” and “negative” are not used in the manner we generally think of them. In this theory, “positive” doesn’t necessarily mean “good” and “negative” doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.”

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