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Using Punishment

Punishment is the application of a stimulus after a behavior, with the consequence that the behavior becomes less frequent or less likely. Most people assume the stimulus has to be unpleasant (aversive), but that is not always the case. Any stimulus that has the effect of lowering the frequency of a behavior it follows is a punisher, by definition, even if it does not seem like one.

Electric shock is often the most effective punishing stimulus. Perhaps because electricity is an unnatural stimulus, or because it disrupts the activity of nerve cells, organisms never become accustomed to it, and they will do almost anything to avoid it. Whatever the reason, electric shock "penetrates" when other punishers fail to work.

What is punishment?

Treatment of head-banging

Whaley and Mallott (1971) tell of a nine-year-old, mentally retarded boy who caused himself serious injury by head-banging. The boy had to be kept in a straitjacket or padded room to keep him from hurting himself. This prevented normal development; he acted more like a three-year-old than a nine-year-old. Left unrestrained in a padded room, the boy banged his head up to a thousand times in an hour. Something had to be done.

How did punishment help the child who banged his head?

The researchers decided to try a punishment procedure. They placed shock leads (electrodes) on the boy's leg, strapping them on so he could not remove them. Each time he banged his head, they delivered a mild shock to his leg.

The first time he banged his head and was given a shock, Dickie stopped abruptly and looked about the room in a puzzled manner. He did not bang his head for a full three minutes, and then made three contacts with the floor in quick succession, receiving a mild shock after each one. He again stopped his head-banging activity for three minutes. At the end of that time he made one more contact, received a shock, and did not bang his head for the remainder of the one-hour session. On subsequent sessions, after a shock was given the first time Dickie banged his head, he abandoned this behavior. Soon the head banging had stopped completely and the mat was removed from the room. Later, a successful attempt was made to prevent Dickie from banging his head in other areas of the ward.

Currently Dickie no longer needs to be restrained or confined and has not been observed to bang his head since the treatment was terminated; therefore, in his case, punishment was a very effective technique for eliminating undesirable behavior. The psychologist working with Dickie stressed that the shock used was mild and, compared to the harm and possible danger involved in Dickie's head banging, was certainly justified (Whaley & Mallott, 1971).

Twenty years after this technique was developed, it was still being debated. It worked and spared the child further self-injury, plus it stopped a destructive habit that might have persisted for years if left unchecked. However, people who regarded any use of electric shock with humans as unacceptable attacked this technique as cruel.

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