Negative Punishment – Theory, Practice & Examples

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For an ordinary person, any punishment involves a negative perception and causes feelings of distress. It is something that happens when you do something wrong, right?

But, behavioral psychology recognizes a specific type of punishment when discussing negative punishment. It is a term developed by Skinner around the 70ties in his attempt to prove that external factors shape people’s behavior.

These factors can prevent unwanted behavior (punishment) or encourage desired behavior (reinforcement).

Negative punishment within Skinner’s operant conditioning means taking something enjoyable away so that the person who does something wrong is discouraged from repeating the behavior.

This article looks into negative punishment, its effect, and how it helps minimize unwanted behavior. The term “negative” is often associated with something bad. Yet, its meaning in behavioral psychology implies removing something pleasant, beneficial, or enjoyable to prevent unwanted behavior.

So negative punishment is one of the methods used to modify behavior. One of the most evident disadvantages of negative behavior is the lack of information on the desired outcome.

In other words, it teaches that the exhibited behavior is not acceptable, but it doesn’t teach what the desired behavior is. Not allowing a boy to spend time outdoors because he failed to do his homework is an example of negative punishment.

The boy understands that homework should be his priority, so he needs to do it first before enjoying his free time with friends.

Here, negative punishment is likely to create good habits, provided it is administered consistently. Negative punishment can be expressed in many ways, but a common example of it can be depriving a child of their toys. Once they do something bad, if a parent punishes them by taking away their favorite toys, they will learn that their behavior wasn’t acceptable.

Another example of negative punishment can be being grounded, losing access to computer games, their favorite sweets, or other types of food. A lot of scientific studies have proved the effectiveness of negative punishment in reducing unwanted behaviors, especially in children.

In fact, it’s a core principle of behaviorism, a classic theory of psychology, and the reason for its effectiveness is that a person who is punished negatively starts to associate the deprivation of something positive with negative behavior.

As a result, the likelihood of this unwanted behavior lessens because the person experiences negative feelings while being deprived of something positive.

What is Negative Punishment? Definition and Meaning

Unlike the common understanding of the term ‘negative’ as something bad, in behavioral psychology, it means the removal of something desirable or enjoyable.

The term denotes being devoid of something, and it is the opposite of positive punishment. Since it includes taking something away, it is often called “punishment by removal.”

We have all been subjects of negative punishment, from our homes, schools, to working places and service providers. Being grounded, reducing the salary, and not being allowed to enjoy a trip with friends are examples of negative punishment.

Positive and negative punishments represent two methods to discourage or prevent unwanted behavior from happening.

Contrary to negative punishment, positive punishment involves adding something as punishment to prevent the individual from repeating it. This might include doing additional chores, paying extra fees, working overtime, or writing on the topic.

In addition to punishments, Skinner’s operant conditioning theory includes the concepts of positive and negative reinforcements, which, in conjunction with punishment, work towards shaping a required behavior.

It goes without saying that punishments and reinforcements start at the youngest age and continue at school and in different social areas.

How Negative Punishment Works in Psychology

People are social beings, and we all love entertainment, fun, and access to services and places.

These psychological needs rate just above the scale of the basic needs (food, drinks, sleep) and are considered important factors to shape the quality of people’s life.

They can motivate us to work harder to get them, regardless of our age.

Removing something that makes us feel good and satisfied will naturally lead to disappointment and frustration.

Skinner argued that when these feel-good objects or activities are taken away due to doing something wrongly, there will be enough impetus to prevent the same wrong behavior from happening again.

Think about a situation when a teenage boy comes home later than the agreed curfew time. A negative punishment for such wrongdoing would be grounding the boy for a week or not allowing him access to the internet.

This punishment is likely to affect the boy as he knows the consequences of not obeying the family rules.

5 Examples of Negative Punishment

We can come across examples of negative punishment in various social spheres.

Parents often use it to prevent unwanted behavior, but it is a common method used in schools, work environments, and literally, everywhere rules are disobeyed.


Fighting with a sibling – If kids are fighting over a toy or favorite video game, a common example of negative punishment is taking away the toy or the game for some time.

That way, the children are supposed to learn that when they fight, none of them will have the privilege to play with the toy.

Coming home later than agreed – When a teenager comes back later than the curfew time, it is expected that his/her parents will apply a certain punishment.

The most common negative punishment involves being grounded for a week or two, clearly implying that such behavior won’t be tolerated.


Answering a phone call during the class – If a student picks up the phone while the teacher is explaining the lesson, it is an obvious example of breaking the school rules.

This will result in taking the student’s phone away for the day, which is an example of negative punishment.

Law Enforcement

Drinking and driving – If you decide to drive your car after drinking a few alcoholic beverages and police officers pull you over, you’ll get punished.

They will suspend your driving license for a designated time and retain your car in such a case.

These two are examples of negative punishment, as you won’t be able to enjoy your car for quite some time.

In addition, you will have to pay a fine, which is an example of positive punishment.

Work environment

Not meeting a project deadline – If your manager has given you a strict deadline to complete an ongoing project, and you fail to finish it on time, the chances are you’ll face the consequences.

The most common punishment is salary decrease or not getting the expected bonus, which are forms of negative punishment.

When is Negative Punishment Most Effect Effective and How to Use It?

Negative punishment can be a highly effective technique to prevent unwanted behavior because the person associates the loss of something meaningful and enjoyable with the negative behavior.

However, even Skinner himself suggested that certain criteria must be met to deliver a long-term effect.

The most important ones include:

ConsistencyIt would be incredibly easy to teach children what is right or wrong by just one example. However, can hardly ever happen because children and adults often test and move the limits to see how far they can go.

So, you can’t expect that children will stop behaving badly by just one application of negative punishment.

On the contrary, it takes practice and patience until their developing brain is able to make the connection between losing something good and their bad behavior.

This means, when your children fight over a toy, you need to remove the toy as many times as they fight so that they are fully aware of the consequences.

Take, for example, a teenage girl who’s caught driving without a driving license. The girl is much more likely to repeat the behavior if she isn’t punished immediately after being caught.

The punishment might come from her parents and the law enforcement as well.

Contiguity – Contiguity in the context of negative punishment means that the punishment follows the bad behavior immediately after it happens.

That is particularly important for children and teenagers, as they can relate their improper behavior to the punishment. Negative behavior is the least effective when applied days or even weeks after it occurs.

It is harder for the wrongdoer to relate it with improper behavior, and it signals that his/her misbehavior is not taken seriously.

Make the punishment fit the crime – If the punishment is too mild or too harsh, it won’t deliver the expected outcome.

Too harsh punishments lead to frustration, disappointment, and aggression, while too mild punishments are hard to make an impact.

Think of a child who misbehaves at school. As punishment, the child is excluded from the field trip, taken away all good-behavior tokens, and at the same time is grounded at home.

In that case, the child is more likely to feel demotivated, humiliated, and even depressed rather than encouraged to change his/her behavior.

Negative Punishment For Kids

Kids need guidance, correction, and encouragement to shape their behavior in line with the moral and social standards.

Skinner firmly believed that punishments and reinforcements play a significant role in kids’ upbringing.

While the idea of punishment usually implies negative consequences, positive and negative punishment can deliver excellent results when implemented correctly.

Most psychologies today, especially positive psychologists, advise on using punishments sparingly and in combination with positive reinforcement methods for optimal results.

When implementing negative punishment on kids, parents, teachers, and caregivers must make sure that the punishment will bring value and can correct a child’s behavior.

When the punishment is time out, the rule of the thumb is the number of minutes should match the child’s years. Also, when removing a child’s from his/her favorite activity or taking a toy away, it should correspond to the difficulty of the wrong behavior.

In other words, if your toddler is throwing tantrums in the supermarket, not buying the promised snack could teach her that every time she behaves like that, she won’t be rewarded.

This will eventually lead to reducing the number of tantrums she throws. However, suppose you additionally punish her at home by not allowing her any screen time for something that happened a few hours before.

In that case, it could confuse her and won’t deliver the expected outcome. On the contrary, the child might become fussier and more disobedient.

Psychologists also recommend fostering positive behavior and rewarding it anytime it happens. Also, when you punish your child, make sure you clearly explain why you punish him/her and what type of behavior you expect to see.

If any example behavior is available, point to it, i.e., praise a child that behaves well, and say that it is the behavior you’d like to see in your child.

Remember to adhere to the three golden rules of negative punishment:

Consistency- negative punishment should be implemented any time the child does something wrong

Immediacy – the negative punishment is the most effective when applied immediately after the child exhibits improper behavior

Appropriacy – the punishment needs to be suitable for the child’s age and the seriousness of the unwanted behavior

Negative Punishment in the Classroom

Punishments and reinforcements are frequently used in classrooms to prevent unwanted behavior and encourage good behavior, such as:

  • Taking the student’s phone or tablet because of improper use during the class;
  • Removing the student’s good-behavior tokens and lowering his/her grades;
  • Not allowing the student to take part in a field trip because he/she was disrupting the class;
  • Not allowing the student to join a free time activity because he/she was fighting with another student;
  • Expelling a student from the school is the most rigorous punishment, and it usually occurs when a student engages in criminal activities such as stealing or drug dealing.
  • While punishment can be a good method to teach students obedience and responsibility, it shouldn’t be the only one.
  • In combination with reinforcement and a strength-based approach (teachers foster students’ strengths), students are likely to show much-improved behavior.

Negative Punishment Vs Negative Reinforcement

Punishment and reinforcements are two different methods differing in the end results.

The punishment is intended to prevent or stop certain unwanted behavior.

Reinforcement encourages positive behavior.

While negative behavior means removing something pleasant to signal bad behavior, negative reinforcement means removing something unpleasant to stimulate good behavior.

Negative Reinforcement Examples

Classroom: A student hates doing homework. The teacher tells him that if he outperforms himself during the class, she will remove his homework.

The student shows impressive results at school, so the teacher stops giving him homework. Removing the homework from the student is an example of negative reinforcement to encourage positive behavior.

Workplace: An IT company is developing new software. Designers need to spend lots of time researching and testing the software at a specific time, but due to rush hours, some fail to arrive on time.

The company’s management decides to allow them to work from home and not go to work. This reinforcement helps them increase their efficiency and do the job as planned.

Home: Think of a toddler who doesn’t like to eat her veggies. Her parents tell her that they will stop being mad at her if she eats the serving.

The child decides to eat the veggies, and as a result, the parents are happy and content with her.

Negative Punishment Vs Positive Punishment

As we described above, negative punishment means removing something so that bad behavior is discouraged.

On the other hand, positive punishment means adding something to the mix to prevent improper behavior.

Positive punishment can have many forms and shapes, from shouting and yelling at a misbehaving child to making someone do extra work or paying a fine.

Just like negative punishment, positive punishment can be used in various social spheres.

Take a look at the following examples:

Classroom: A student talks loudly in class while the teacher is explaining the lesson. A positive punishment would be the extra homework she gives her.

By doing more homework than the classmates, the student is expected to behave better in class.

Home: The child forgets to tidy his room even though asked several times. As a result, his parents tell him to wash the dishes in addition to tidying the room.

Law Enforcement: If a person is caught speeding, then he/she’ll get a speeding fine, which is an act of positive punishment.

Both negative and positive punishments have the same end goal, i.e., their purpose is to stop someone from behaving badly in any social environment. 

Pros and Cons of Negative Punishment

Advantages of Negative Punishment

  • When you remove something enjoyable from a child as a punishment for his/her behavior, it signals that such behavior can’t be tolerated.
  • It allows children to associate the punishment with negative behavior to know the consequences when the same behavior occurs.
  • It makes the individual vary of future occurrence, so that person is more likely to take precautions so that similar negative behavior doesn’t happen in future (pay the bills, work more carefully, obey the rules).

Disadvantages of Negative Punishment

  • Without proper explanation and guidance, it might be hard for a child to associate the punishment with unwanted behavior.
  • When implemented too often, it could increase frustration and is likely to have a negative effect, i.e., it might not exert the wanted behavior.
  • It doesn’t deliver a long-term effect, i.e., it doesn’t make the child forget the behavior if the punishment is the only method used for behavior change.
    In such a case, it is more likely that the behavior will only be suppressed unless additional stimuli or reinforcement is included.
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