We’re going to train a male rat in a maze. Our simple maze is shaped like the letter T, and we’re going to place the rat at the bottom of the stem and allow it to run forward to the point where it must choose to turn into one arm of the T, either right or left. To make the choice easy, we’re going to use a rat that hasn’t eaten for 24 hours, and we’re placing 10 food pellets (a good size reward) at the end of the left arm of the maze. The right arm? For now, that arm is blocked off. So, we’re telling the rat, “Want food? Turn left!”

It won’t take the rat long to learn that once placed in the maze, it is appropriate to run to the end of stem and turn left because food is at the end of the left arm. Turning left is reinforced.

For the next phase of the study we’re going to electrify the floor in the left arm. In other words, we’re going to decide that turning left in this maze is inappropriate, and we’re going to punish the rat for doing so. Turning left is the only choice for the rat, but that action will now be punished by giving a painful electric shock to the paws. So, now we have a hungry rat who “knows” there is food at the end of the left arm, but we don’t allow it to get to the food because the shock is too painful.

The rat no longer turns left. Success! Our punishment has worked; we have eliminated the undesirable behavior.

But has the punishment really worked? When you reach in to remove the rat from the maze you better have a glove on because the rat is likely to attack your finger or hand. Similarly, if you place a totally innocent rat in the maze, the punished rat is likely to attack the innocent one.

In short, punishment has produced one pissed-off rat and we have generated the unintended consequence of causing aggressive outbursts in our punished rat. It’s kind of like if your child draws on the hallway wall, you punish him by throwing away his crayons. The poor kid wants to express some creative impulses, but you tell him, “No!” So now he hates you, goes to his room and trashes it, and kicks the cat on the way.

So, what’s missing here? What’s the secret to the effective use of punishment? Simple answer: Punish inappropriate behavior, but also provide for and reinforce an alternative action that can satisfy the motivation behind the punished action.

In the case of our rat, we have decided that we don’t want it turning to the left, so we punish that response. But now, in addition to the punishment for turning left, let’s open up the right arm of the T-maze, and place 1 food pellet at the end of that arm. Granted, 1 pellet is a lot smaller reward than the 10 pellets in the left arm, but there’s no punishment for going after the 1 pellet, and some food is better than none. The cost-benefit ratio of turning right is much better than turning left. What happens? The rat quickly learns to turn right.

The great thing about combining punishment with rewarding an alternative action is that those undesirable aggressive side-effects are greatly diminished. Not only does our rat make the desired response, but he is also less likely to attack your hand or the innocent bystander rat.

By the same token, if you scold your child for drawing on the wall and threaten to take his crayons if he does it again, but follow the threat by giving him coloring books or rolls of newsprint to draw on, you’re giving him a creative outlet while keeping your walls clean. Providing the alternative allows you to say, “No drawing on the walls or there will be consequences; use the coloring books or the newsprint instead.” You can even provide reinforcement by praising his creativity and displaying his artwork on the fridge or in your office.

Punishment by itself is a poor method of behavior control because it says, “Don’t do this!” Punishment by itself doesn’t provide information about what is an acceptable and appropriate action that can still, even if only partially, satisfy the motivation driving the punished action.

So, remember the punishment rule: Combine, “Don’t do this,” with, “Do this,” and remember to reward the latter action when it occurs. Whether in a childrearing context, or in your adult interactions, you’ll find the combination strategy is likely to produce satisfying outcomes for all concerned.

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