In my last blog article I wrote about the importance of using the terms of Operant Conditioning (OC) and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) correctly and consistently. The article was inspired by what I considered to be a disappointing article published by Karen Pryor, in particular her discussion of Punishment. In response to my post I received a most excellent and well thought out email from Chris Shank, a well respected parrot trainer. Chris wrote:
I was quite interested in your response on Karen Pryor’s comments on punishment from her website. I’m currently reading Sidman’s, Coercion and its Fallout.’ Fascinating reading. In chapter 2, pg. 45, he says this about punishment:
‘But we define punishment without appealing to any behavioral effect; punishment occurs whenever an action is followed either by a loss of positive or a gain of negative reinforcers. This definition says nothing about the effect of a punisher on the action that produces it.
It says neither that punishment is the oppositie [sic] of reinforcement nor that punishment reduces the future likelihood of punished actions.’
This is indeed one area where Sidman appears to be at odds with almost all other contemporary behaviorists.
After receiving Chris’ email I did some additional research just to be sure that my understanding of this term was supportable. In addition to having a long conversation with Dr Susan Friedman on this subject I also referred to my copy of “Learning and Behavior” by Paul Chance.
What we have here is an example of how science works; ideas are postulated, discussed, and tested. Science is dynamic and the definition of Punishment is a wonderful example of how science progresses and changes as new ideas are presented, challenged, and tested. If science did not operate this way then behaviorists would not be thinking of Punishment at all since B. F. Skinner himself (the “father” of behavioral science) stated that from his experiments Punishment was ineffective. What those that have followed Skinner have discovered through challenge and experiment is that indeed Punishment does work and possibly the levels of aversives being used by Skinner were too low to be effective. The Chance book cites some excellent studies on Punishment and for those who wish to dig deeper into this subject I would highly recommend reading his chapter on Punishment.
The definition of Punishment I use is the one used by the majority of respected contemporary behaviorists and animal trainers:
“Punishment is a consequence delivered after a behavior that serves to reduce the frequency or intensity with which the behavior is exhibited,” Susan Friedman – “The Facts About Punishment“
“The procedure of providing consequences for a behavior that reduce the strength of that behavior,” Paul Chance – Learning and Behavior
“The procedure of providing consequence for a response that reduces the frequency of that response” – International Marine Mammal Trainers’ Association – Glossary
“The procedure of providing consequences for a behavior that decrease the frequency of that behavior.” – University of South Florida Glossary of Behavior
The way that science tests these definitions is by challenging them with real behavioral examples; indeed this is what Sidman does in another article where he challenges the definition (The Distinction Between Positive and Negative Reinforcement: Some Additional Considerations). He presents a number of test examples that he believes show that the above definition is wrong. For example he asks “When a parent ends a child’s eating between meals by hiding the cookie jar, has the child’s cookie eating been punished?” The answer is patently no, however I see this as comparing apples and oranges because what the parent did was to change the antecedents of behavior (hide the jar) and NOT apply a contingent consequence to reduce the behavior.
In reading the above article by Sidman it appears that his main argument against the contemporary definition of Punishment is two-fold. Firstly that it is not how Skinner defined it and secondly that the contemporary definition was simply adopted by behaviorists without the proper scientific discussion, debate, and challenge. In the light of the fact that Skinner stated that Punishment was ineffective one can only assume that any conclusions he drew about Punishment after this were flawed or at least based upon shaky ground. Since we now know that indeed Punishment does work we need an update to that part of the Skinnerian hypotheses; the contemporary definitions above provide that update. Secondly, in challenging the contemporary definition of Punishment Sidman is addressing the second part of his objection to the definition and it appears that the majority of contemporary behaviorists are meeting his challenge and successfully defending the definition I gave and those above. Therefore through his challenges he is actually encouraging contemporary behaviorists to fulfill the need for challenge, debate, and test of the definition. This is a good thing since to date those challenges have been answered.
So, I stand by my original article and its definition of Punishment, at least until through its continuing journey science brings a better way of expressing the concepts that we use to describe behavior. And that after all is what these terms are all about; building a common language that practitioners of behavior change (i.e. trainers) can use to communicate clearly with both peers and students.
Chris asked in her email if in the light of the writings of Sidman on this subject it was correct to say that Karen Pryor was “wrong” in her discussion of Punishment. Having read some more and talked with others about this I stand by the point of my article; the terminology of OC and ABA can be confusing even when used correctly, to mix historical and contemporary concepts can only lead to deeper confusion; especially when these concepts are held to be correct by the majority of contemporary behaviorists. I find this especially important in arena that Karen Pryor publishes her writings, the pet community. It is vitally important that those who have respect and reputation in that community communicate in a cohesive and accurate manner the principles and terminology of the science. I still feel that Karen Pryor’s article failed to meet those criteria and yes I believe she was wrong in her definition of Punishment.
My thanks go to Chris Shank for opening this discussion in such an interesting way.
In closing I would like to refer back to my previous articles about Primary and Secondary reinforcers. I was sent a clip from an internet posting that stated that my understanding of these terms was incorrect. I do not propose to reopen that discussion since I believe I clearly stated the correct definitions of those items in the original articles and that the poster of the message continues to be mistaken. I will simply refer anyone who is confused about the terms back to my original articles.