Reducing behavior means punishment occurred – not!

When there is a reduction in behavior punishment is always in play! Once again I saw this used in a discussion in an Internet group. The discussion centered around the reduction of unwanted behavior, in the particular case it was a free flying bird landing on strangers. I don’t intend to address the poor strategies suggested to resolve this or the much better alternate strategies suggested. Rather I want to talk about the argument put up that even when using the alternate strategy because the unwanted behavior is reduced punishment is still present.

Again, for those who may not be familiar with the use of the word punishment here, I use it in its technical, behavioral sense and that is a contingent consequence that reduces the future frequency of the behavior it follows.

Punishment is a process and not a single event. It is the process over time, by which a consequence reduces behavior. Note that punishment is not the only way to reduce behavior; it is one of several approaches that include differential reinforcement of an alternate or incompatible behavior, extinction, and establishing operations. And this is where the writer who said that even when a positive reinforcement approach is used to resolve the landing on strangers problem, if the landing reduces then it has been punished is wrong. Something completely different and at the totally opposite end of the intrusiveness spectrum is in play and no aversive events are required!

So, let’s think about this a bit. Remember that all behavior serves some function for the subject performing it. So, if a bird is landing on strangers we can hypothesize that social interaction is what is reinforcing (maintaining) the behavior. Rather than punishing the behavior, since this simply attempts to teach the bird what NOT to do; we can devise a training strategy that drains the value of social interaction when the bird is being flown.  This strategy was written about by Raz Rasmussen in her blog and also the basis of a presentation she gave at the recent IAATE conference in Albuquerque, NM. For these reasons I won’t go into the details of the strategy used here. What I wish to focus on is that while the unwanted behavior may have been reduced it was not punished. The principle involved here is an antecedent arrangement, technically an establishing operation that serves to reduce the value of the reinforcer that was maintaining the unwanted behavior. The bird chooses not to land on strangers because doing so would result in a now less valued reinforcer than those available from the trainer and/or elsewhere in the environment.

In our efforts to have the smallest set of simple rules to understand and influence behavior it is easy to grab hold of a rule and use it without thinking it through. I have been guilty of this myself in the past; however, I do pride myself on having a very inquisitive mind and an ability to analyze things pretty well. The simple statement that if a behavior is reduced then punishment is in play is one we must be wary of. It is similar to talking about consequences being reinforcing or punishing without the context of the behavior; we must be specific about context when evaluating if punishment is in play. Ask, was a contingent, contiguous stimulus presented or removed that caused the behavior reduction. Then you will know if the behavior was punished or if some other behavior principle is in play.

In this article I have used terms that are not explained in the text, all the terms used here have appeared and been defined in previous articles and I chose not to make this article even longer by explaining each one. Please browse back to these older articles.

ABCs … a training tool

Positive good … Negative bad

A special thank you goes out to Dr Susan Friedman for reviewing this article and contining to empower and encourage those willing to listen on this journey of learning.

Keep soaring,


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