Punishing Unwanted Behaviour Just Makes it Worse

Based on neuroscience

Jillian Enright
neurodiversified
Published in
11 min readJul 5, 2021

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Created by author using Canva

Doubling down on a previous story, Punishment Does Not Work, I am taking this concept a step further by explaining how punishment actually makes things worse in a lot of cases.

Firstly, let me explain what I mean by punishment.

The scientific definition of punishment is a consequence that follows a behaviour that decreases (or attempts to decrease) the likelihood of that behaviour occurring in the future.

So when I refer to punishment, I don’t mean only physical punishment, I am referring to anything that a child may experience as unpleasant. This can mean time-out, yelling, removal of privileges, grounding, suspension from school, and spanking.

This is not a new concept

The concept of avoiding the use of aversives is not a liberal snowflake, new-age form of permissive parenting. The idea that punishment may do more harm than good has been around for at least 77 years.

As early as 1944, a psychologist named Dr. William Kaye Estes wrote in favour of positive reinforcement over punishment. Dr. Estes concluded there was no evidence to indicate that punishment exerts a direct weakening effect upon a behaviour comparable to the strengthening produced by a reward.

B.F. Skinner himself, the scientist whose work many clinicians with a behaviourist philosophy use to defend their practices, actually warned about the fallout of using punishment.

Quote by B.F. Skinner — (Image created by author)

In his 1953 textbook, Science and Human Behavior, B.F. Skinner explained that while punishment may seem to stop undesirable behaviour, the behaviour often returns once the punishment ends if a child has not been taught more adaptive ways to behave.

Worse, punishment creates fear, guilt, and shame, which result in less learning overall.

In his experiments involving rats, Skinner came to realize that punishment does not result in learning. In fact, punishment doesn’t even stop undesired behaviour, it only temporarily suppresses that behaviour…

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Jillian Enright
neurodiversified

She/they. Neurodivergent, 20+ yrs SW & Psych. experience. I write about mental health, neurodiversity, education, and parenting. Founder of Neurodiversity MB.