Punishment-only Training: Huh?

One of the common modern concepts in ‘scientific’ training is ‘punished-based’ (Ken Ramirez from the Shedd Aquarium uses ‘coercion based’) training. The problem is that they claim to be ‘science-based.’ That is a contradiction for a number of reasons. First, nobody is “punishment-based” because punishment stops behavior. How can one create behaviors while stopping them? Second, without a context there is no logical way to determine whether reinforcement or punishment is the correct answer to a training problem. Third, nobody is limited to using a single polarity. What “punishment-based” really means is an attempt to demonize “others” with a term that implies abuse. This destroys any possibility of discussing behavioral control rationally. Here’s an example –

In a recent Facebook conversation on the Association for Behavior Analysis International page, a competing behavior expert claimed to have a better way of teaching children. His name is Greene. He threw an ironic accusation against the metaphoric children of Skinner – one they aren’t used to. He said they used punishment. One of the defenders of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) lamented that there are parents out there who use punishment-only and haven’t received the enlightened bounty of coercion-free ABA. This was my reply. I have added two citations – one to Skinner and one to Sidman. (I’m not real popular among the various ideologically driven behavior analysts in that group. I stick around because some of the people there are the parents or loved-ones of people who are confined in the care of behavior analysts and deserve to know where the bodies are buried.)

The “punishment only” argument is a straw man. Nobody does that. It’s as illogical as the “positive reinforcement only” ideology that is pervasive in behavioral science. Worse, there is no distinction made between contingent and non-contingent punishment – though the two classifications have entirely different effects on behavior.

Skinner started the “punishment doesn’t work” mantra. (Science and Human Behavior) Sidman did the “coercion is always damaging” part of it. (Coercion and Its Fallout) Now the chickens have come home to roost. Behavior analysts can’t talk about punishment or coercion because they helped conflate punishment with abuse. That eliminates the possibility of creating effective pro-social programs for behavioral control. Here are two different perspectives on the topic.

“Further, as Azrin and Holz (1966) have pointed out, gross observation seems to indicate that no chronic emotional maladjustment is engendered by a child’s having been burned by touching a radiator or having skinned a knee by falling off a bike. It is fortunate that punishment does not produce strong lasting emotional effects under most circumstances since it would be impossible to eliminate punishment from the natural environment. ” Ron Van Houten, The Effects of Punishment on Human Behvaior, Axelrod and Apsche, Academic Press, 1983.

“Providing negative consequences is the fastest, most effective means of eliminating unwanted behavior. Far faster than developing stimulus control or teaching an alternate behavior. ” Nate Azrin, (personal communication)

So, no contingent punishment, no stopping anti-social behavior. If you do not have the ability to say the word punishment without negative connotations and make the distinction between contingent and non-contingent punishment you cannot study behavior objectively, meaning scientifically. At the ABAI 2015 conference there were no presentations that discussed any aspecf of the image below. That a behavior analyst might choose not to use contingent punishment isn’t the point. People experience punishment all the time and are harmed by it and also benefit from it. So, who is going to present at the next ABAI conference on the blessings of contingent pricked-finger-and-cactus-spinepunishment? It teaches you to ride a bike and not touch cactus. Or should we oppose bike riding because it includes punishing contingencies? The cactus touching is beyond the scope of advocacy or opposition.

4 thoughts on “Punishment-only Training: Huh?

  1. Can you send me the reference where Skinner says punishment doesn’t work? I’m a bit confused, he lists punishment as a way to change behavior. I know as a philosopher he envisioned a society based on positive reinforcement, but he did research on negative reinforcement and punishment with animals. His definitions are circular, so if a so-called “punishment” didn’t work, it’s my understanding that it really wasn’t a punisher for that organism. A lot of things society considers as punishment doesn’t work very well–jail time, class suspension–and probably isn’t really punishment for the individual. Not because jail isn’t unpleasant, but because for punishment to work it needs to be soon after the event and severe enough to actually stop the behavior (that circularity issue again). Plus in criminal behavior you’ve got other issues such as environmental triggers and a host of internal variables. Obviously, schools and institutions are limited–and should be– in what they can do as a punishment. The term “science based” shouldn’t mean just positive reinforcement only, the science of behavior change should encompass the whole spectrum. As far as using punishment in dog training, the issues of avoidance behaviors and negative fall-out is real, and it’s up to trainers and owners to take that into account. But, I don’t see how anyone could do “punishment only” training, I don’t see how that could be possible. (Oh, and as an aside, I fell off my bike last year and broke my collarbone, that has pretty much extinguished my bike riding, haven’t been on one since).

    • Chris, this is from Science and Human Behavior (1953)
      ““More recently, the suspicion has also arisen that punishment does not in fact do what it is supposed to do. An immediate effect in reducing a tendency to behave is clear enough, but this may be misleading. The reduction in strength may not be permanent.”

      The “recent suspicions” were created because Skinner collaborated with Estes who had a habit of injecting non-contingent electric shock into experiments. This led to two problems – the conflation of the word punishment with any nastiness thrown at an animal and a stilted examination of the phenomenon. Here’s an example – Azrin, Holz & Hake, Fixed Ratio Punishment, JEAB, 1963.

      ““Responses were maintained by a variable-interval schedule of food reinforcement. At the same time, punishment was delivered following every nth response (fixed-ratio punishment). … This type of intermittent punishment produced less rapid and less complete suppression than did continuous punishment.”

      This isn’t a study of punishment. It’s a study of what happens if you arbitrarily reinforce a behavior and then shock it every X times. The point is that it’s called punishment. This method of experimentation (cited in the paper as coming from Estes and Skinner) is the source of the “recent suspicions” that ‘punishment’ doesn’t work. Now, 60 years later, “scientific” trainers and behaviorists use distorted language to demonize people. Your experience a year ago is an example of contingent punishment. You know exactly what broke your collar bone. You stopped riding bikes. That’s how it’s supposed to work. 🙂

  2. Contingent punishment means that the action (immediately) caused the desired change in behavior and non-contingent punishment means it didn’t cause the desired change in behavior? [Would you define contingent punishment and non-contingent punishment and give an example of each as it applies to dogs?]

    • mhll53, A contingency describes a one-to-one “if/then” relationship. Push your finger on a cactus needle and the predictable result is unpleasant pain. Unless you have a neurological disorder that prevents your brain from integrating such pain into your behavior, you will not intentionally touch cactus needles in the future. Non-contingent punishment means that you got clobbered but there is no direct connection to a specific action. Both are valid tools for behavior modification. They are encapsulated in a concept promoted by educators – “You aren’t punishing the child, you are punishing the behavior”. In reality there are times when non-contingent punishment is a valuable component in fixing a problem. That is because the effect on the organism is typically a reset of their assumptions. That allows you to change long-standing behaviors immediately.

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