This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 05 table of contents.

The Punishment Trap

Ironically, stimuli intended as punishment may sometimes function as reinforcers. How can you tell when something intended as punishment is functioning as reinforcement? Observe the frequency of the behavior. If the behavior becomes more frequent, the intended punisher is actually a reinforcer. If a child responds to punishment by doing more of the same bad behavior, most parents will step up the level of punishment. Sometimes this only makes the behavior worse. If so, the parents are caught in the punishment trap.

How can you tell when attempts at punishment are actually reinforcing a behavior? What is the "punishment trap"? What typically happens when children are well behaved?

How could such a pattern occur? Consider these facts. The average parent is very busy, due partly to having children. The parent enjoys peace and quiet when children are being good or playing peacefully. Therefore, when children are well behaved, parents tend to ignore them. By contrast, when children misbehave, parents must give attention. Parents must break up fights, prevent damage to furniture or walls or pets, and respond to screams or crying. Most children are reinforced by attention. So there you have all the necessary ingredients for the punishment trap. Children learn to misbehave in order to get attention.

One student noticed the misbehavior-for-attention pattern while visiting a friend:

I was at my friend's trailer one weekend visiting with her and her small daughter. I played with Jessie, the little girl, for a while. Then Dee-Ann and I sat down to talk, leaving Jessie to play with her toys. She played quietly for a while, but all of a sudden she got up, stuck her hand in the potted plant, and threw dirt on the floor. Dee-Ann quickly scolded her and got her to play with her toys again. Dee-Ann then sat back down and continued with our conversation. In a few minutes, Jessie was throwing dirt again. Again, Dee-Ann got her to play with her toys, and then sat back down. But in a few minutes Jessie was throwing dirt.

Why did little Jesse throw dirt?

Dee-Ann could not understand why Jessie was acting like that. I then remembered the story about the parents hitting the kids for messing with things, but the kids wanting attention and doing it more often. So I thought maybe Jessie was being reinforced for throwing dirt because each time she threw dirt, Dee-Ann's attention reverted to her. I explained this to Dee-Ann, and the next time Jessie messed with the plant, Dee-Ann simply ignored her, picked up the plant and sat it out of Jessie's reach. That ended the dirt-throwing problems. [Author's files]

Little Jessie probably got lots of loving attention when her mother was not engrossed in conversation with a friend. But some children receive almost no attention unless they are "bad." In such cases, serious behavior problems may be established. One student remembers this from her childhood:

When I was a little girl, I always told lies, even if I did not do anything wrong... I think the only reason I lied was to get attention, which my parents never gave me. But one thing puzzles me. Why would I lie when I knew my dad was going to spank me with a belt? It really hurt. [Author's files]

How can a stimulus intended as punishment actually function as a reinforcer, in this type of situation?

The answer to this student's question, probably, is that she wanted attention more than she feared pain. Any attention-even getting hit with a belt-is better than being totally ignored. Similar dynamics can occur in a school classroom. One of my students told about a teacher in elementary school who wrote the names of "bad" children on the board. Some children deliberately misbehaved in order to see their names on the board.

How can a parent avoid the punishment trap?

The solution? It is contained in the title of a book (and video series) called Catch Them Being Good. Parents should go out of their way to give sincere social reinforcement-love, attention, and appreciation-when it is deserved. When children are playing quietly or working on some worthy project, a parent should admire what they are doing. When they are creative, a parent should praise their products. When they invent a game, a parent should let them demonstrate it. If you are a parent with a child in a grocery store, and you observe other children misbehaving, point this out to your own children and tell them how grateful you are that they know how to behave in public. Don't wait for them to misbehave. Point out how "mature" they are, compared to those kids in the next aisle who are yelling and screaming.

Sincere social reinforcement of desirable behavior is a very positive form of differential reinforcement. It encourages a set of behaviors that might be called sweetness. With such a child, the occasional reprimand or angry word is genuinely punishing. This reduces the overall level of punishment considerably. A child who loves you and trusts you and looks forward to your support may be genuinely stricken by harsh words. A loving parent realizes this and adopts a gentler approach, which is usually adequate when a child cares about pleasing the parent.

What did Tanzer write about in the book titled Your Pet Isn't Sick ?

Pets are also capable of something like the punishment trap. They, too, can learn to misbehave or pretend to be ill, in order to get attention from humans.

One veterinarian saw so many malingering animals trying to get attention by acting ill, coughing, or limping, that he wrote a book called Your Pet Isn't Sick [He Just Wants You to Think So] (Tanzer, 1977). It explained how owners who accidentally reinforced symptoms of illness caused pet problems. Owners will run over to a pet and comfort it, if it makes a funny noise like a cough. Soon the pet would be coughing all the time. Tanzer found that if the animals were not reinforced for the symptoms (after a thorough check to rule out genuine problems) the symptom would go away.

What did one vet call the "single most common problem" he encountered?

Another vet specialized in house calls so he could see a pet misbehave in context. He said unwitting reinforcement of undesired behavior was the single most common problem he encountered. The solution was the same as with many child behavior problems: "catch them being good." Praise the pet and give it lots of love when it acts healthy; ignore it when it starts coughing or limping. Usually the problem goes away. Of course, first you have to rule out genuine medical problems.


Write to Dr. Dewey at psywww@gmail.com.

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey