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Behaviorism Case Study

For as long as human beings can remember, they have always been interested inwhat makes them who they are and what aspects of their being set each of them apartfrom others of their species. The answer according to behaviorists is nothing morethan the world in which they grew up. Behaviorism is the theory that human naturecan be fully understood by the laws inherent in the natural environment.

As one of the oldest theories of personality, behaviorism dates back toDescartes, who introduced the idea of a stimulus and called the person a machinedependent on external events whose soul was the ghost in the machine. Behaviorismtakes this idea to another level. Although most theories operate to some degree onthe assumption that humans have some sort of free will and are moral thinkingentities, behaviorism refuses to acknowledge the internal workings of persons. Inthe mind of the behaviorist, persons are nothing more than simple mediators betweenbehavior and the environment (Skinner, 1993, p 428).

The dismissal of the internal workings of human beings leads to one problemopponents have with the behavioral theory. This, along with its incapability ofexplaining the human phenomenon of language and memory, build a convincing caseagainst behaviorism as a comprehensive theory. Yet although these criticismsindicate its comprehensive failure, they do not deny that behaviorism and its ideashave much to teach the world about the particular behaviors expressed byhumankind.

The Theory of Behaviorism

Classical Conditioning

The Pavlovian experiment. While studying digestive reflexes in dogs,Russian scientist, Pavlov, made the discovery that led to the real beginnings of behavioral theory. He could reliably predict that dogs would salivate when food wasplaced in the mouth through a reflex called the "salivary reflex" in digestion. Yethe soon realized that, after time, the salivary reflex occurred even before the foodwas offered. Because the sound of the door and the sight of the attendant carryingthe food "had repeatedly and reliably preceded the delivery of food to the mouth inthe past," the dogs had transferred the reflex to these events (Schwartz & Lacy,1982, p. 21). Thus, the dogs began salivating simply at the door's sound and theattendant's presence. Pavlov continued experimenting with the dogs using a tone tosignal for food. He found that the results matched and the dogs had begun tosalivate with the tone and without food (Schwartz & Lacy, 1982, pp. 20-24).

What Pavlov discovered was first order conditioning. In this process, a neutralstimulus that causes no natural response in an organism is associated with anunconditioned stimulus, an event that automatically or naturally causes a response. This usually temporal association causes the response to the unconditioned stimulus,the unconditioned response, to transfer to the neutral stimulus. The unconditionedstimulus no longer needs to be there for the response to occur in the presence ofthe formerly neutral stimulus. Given that this response is not natural and has tobe learned, the response is now a conditioned response and the neutral stimulus isnow a conditioned stimulus. In Pavlov's experiment the tone was the neutralstimulus that was associated with the unconditioned stimulus of food. Theunconditioned response of salivation became a conditioned response to the newlyconditioned stimulus of the tone (Beecroft, 1966, pp. 8-10).

Second order conditioning. When another neutral stimulus is introducedand associated with the conditioned stimulus, even further conditioning takes place. The conditioned response trained to occur only after the conditioned stimulus nowtransfers to the neutral stimulus making it another conditioned stimulus. Now thesecond conditioned stimulus can cause the response without both the firstconditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus. Thus, many new conditionedresponses can be learned (Schwartz & Lacy, 1982, p 48).

When second order or even first order conditioning occur with frighteningunconditioned stimuli, phobias or irrational fears develop. In a study performed byWatson and Rayner (1920), an intense fear of rats was generated in a little boynamed Albert. Whenever Albert would reach for a rat, the researchers would make aloud noise and scare him. Through classical conditioning, Albert associated ratswith the loud fearful noise and transferred his fear with the noise to fear of rats. He then went further and associated rats, which are furry, to all furry objects. Due to second order conditioning, little Albert formed an irrational fear of allfurry objects (Mischel, 1993, pp. 298-299).

Modern classical conditioning. Whereas Pavlov and most of hiscontemporaries saw classical conditioning as learning that comes from exposing anorganism to associations of environmental events, modern classical conditioningtheorists, like R. A. Rescorla, prefer to define it in more specific terms. Rescorla emphasizes the fact that contiguity or a temporal relationship between theunconditioned stimulus and the conditioned stimulus is not enough for Pavlovianconditioning to occur. Instead, the conditioned stimulus must relate someinformation about the unconditioned stimulus (Rescorla, 1988, pp. 151-153).

The importance of this distinction can be seen in the experimental work done byKamin (1969) and his blocking effect. In his experiment, rats were exposed to atone followed by a shock. Following Pavlovian conditioning principles, the tonebecame a conditioned response. Yet, when the same rats were exposed to a tone and alight followed by a shock, no conditioning occurred with the light. This wasbecause the tone had already related the information of the shock's arrival. So,any information the light would have given would have been useless. Even though thelight was associated temporally with the shock, there was no conditioning becausethere was no information related (Schwartz & Lacy, 1982, p. 53).

Operant Conditioning

Thorndike's law of effect. Although evidence of classical conditioningwas there, E. L. Thorndike did not believe that it was comprehensive because mostbehavior in the natural environment was not simple enough to be explained byPavlov's theory. He conducted an experiment where he put a cat in a cage with alatch on the door and a piece of salmon outside of the cage. After first trying toreach through the cage and then scratching at the bars of the cage, the cat finallyhit the latch on the door and the door opened. With the repetition of thisexperiment, the amount of time and effort spent on the futile activities of reachingand scratching by the cats became less and the releasing of the latch occurredsooner. Thorndike's analysis of this behavior was that the behavior that producedthe desired effect became dominant and therefore, occurred faster in the nextexperiments. He argued that more complicated behavior was influenced by anticipatedresults, not by a triggering stimulus as Pavlov had supposed. This idea becameknown as the law of effect, and it provided the basis for Skinner's operantconditioning analysis of behavior (Schwartz & Lacy, 1982, pp. 24-26).

Skinner's positive and negative reinforcement. Although Thorndikedeveloped the basic law of effect, Skinner took this law and constructed a researchprogram around it. He based this program on the experiments he had conducted in hisstudy of punishment and reward. According to Skinner, the behavior caused by thelaw of effect was called operant conditioning because the behavior of an organismchanged or operated on the environment. There were no real environmental stimuliforcing a response from an organism as in classical conditioning. Operantconditioning consists of two important elements, the operant or response and theconsequence. If the consequence is favorable or positively reinforcing, then thelikelihood of another similar response is more than if the consequence is punishing(Mischel, 1993, pp. 304-308).

For instance, in Skinner's experiment a rat was put into a box with a lever. Each time the lever was depressed, food was released. As a result, the rat learnedto press the lever to receive favorable consequences. However, when the food wasreplaced with shocks, the lever depressing stopped almost immediately due topunishing consequences. Similar results were produced by stopping the positivereinforcement of food altogether in a process called extinction, but the operantconditioned response decreased at a much slower rate than when punishment was used. This kind of operant conditioning occurs in the rewarding or punishing disciplineaction taken towards a child (Schwartz, 1982, pp. 27-53).

Discriminative stimuli. The effect stimuli have on an operant responseis different than in Pavlovian conditioning because the stimuli do not cause theresponse. They simply guide the response towards a positive or negative consequence. These operant response stimuli are called discriminative stimuli because theydiscriminate between the good and the bad consequences and indicate what responsewill be the most fruitful. For instance, a red stoplight indicates that one shouldstep on the brakes. Although there is nothing that naturally forces humans to stopat a red light, they do stop. This is because the red indicates that if they donot, negative consequences will follow (Schwartz & Lacey, 1982, pp. 30-31).

Avoidance theory. Although it is not always the case with discriminativestimuli, the red stop light stimuli and the appropriate stop response are also anexample of the behavior known as avoidance-escape behavior. Put simply, thestimulus indicates that a negative consequence will follow if an action is notcarried out, so the action is carried out. This may seem confusing given thatextinction occurs in the sudden absence of any positive reinforcement. However, asshown in the experiments done by Rescorla and Solomon (1967), this is not the case. An animal was placed on one side of a partitioned box and trained to jump over thepartition to avoid a shock. When the shock was removed, the animal retained itsconditioned jumping behavior. Apparently in avoidant behavior, the escape orabsence of reinforcement occurs because of a response. The animals in the boxlearned to expect shock if they did not respond or no shock if they did. Thus, theextinction occurred because they continued to respond to supposedly eliminate theshock (Schwartz & Lacey, 1982, 87-90).

Schedules of reinforcement. Another exception to the extinction rule isan operant conditioned response that has been conditioned by intermittent schedulesof reinforcement. There are four types of intermittent schedules: fixed intervalschedules that reinforce a response after a certain fixed amount of time, variableinterval schedules that reinforce a response after an amount of time that variesfrom reinforcement to reinforcement, fixed ratio schedules that reinforce a responseafter a certain fixed number of responses have been made, and varied ratio schedulesthat reinforce a response after varied numbers of responses are made. As strange asit may seem, maintenance of behavior is actually increased on these intermittentschedules as opposed to continuously reinforced behavior. This is due to the factthat with these occasional reinforcement patterns, the extinction of reinforcementtakes a long time to recognize. As soon as it is recognized though, anotherreinforcement occurs and the extinction of the reinforcement now takes even longerto recognize. Thus, intermittent schedules keep the organism "guessing" as to whenthe reinforcement will occur and will reinforce the behavior without the actualreinforcement taking place (Schwartz & Lacey, 1982, pp. 91-101).

Natural selection by consequences. In an attempt to convince his criticsof the validity of his theory of operant conditioning, Skinner drew some interestingparallels between his theory and Darwin's theory of natural selection. According toSkinner, operant conditioning is nothing more than "a second kind of selection byconsequences" (Skinner, 1984b, p. 477). He pointed out that although naturalselection was necessary for the survival of the species, operant conditioning wasnecessary for an individual to learn. Also, evolutionary advances occurred becausespecies with these advantages were more efficient in passing on the advantage, andoperant conditioning occurs because certain reinforcements have affected theindividual in a more efficient manner. Skinner goes on to draw the parallel betweenthe evolution of living beings from molecules without the concept of life and theinitiation of operant behavior from the environment without the concept of anindependent mind. Finally, Skinner mentions how species adapt to the environment inthe same way an individual adapts to a situation. By comparing these two theories,Skinner hoped to show that like the theory of natural selection, his contemporariesshould accept the theory of operant behavior (Skinner, 1984b, pp. 477-481).

The Validity of Behaviorism

Criticisms of the Behaviorist Theory

Contradictions with the ideas of Darwin's natural selection. WhereasDarwin's theory has been widely accepted by most scientists, behaviorism isconstantly coming under fire from critics. Indeed, this is why Skinner chooses toalign his theory with Darwin's, to give credibility to his own. However, as B.Dahlbom (1984) points out, some ideas in Darwinism contradict Skinner's operantconditioning. Darwin believes humans are constantly improving themselves to gainbetter self-control. Yet, "to increase self-control means to increase liberty" orfee-will, something Skinner's very theory denies exists (Dahlbom, 1984, p. 486).Thus, the very base on which Skinner has formed his theory is a direct contradictionof Darwin's ideas (Dahlbom, 1984, pp. 484-486).

At the same time, as W. Wyrwicka (1984) shows, Skinner compares the positivereinforcement drive inherent in operant conditioning with Darwin's proposal of thenatural selection drive inherent in nature. According to Wyrwicka, the naturalselection drive is dependent on what is necessary for the survival of the species,and "the consequences of operant behavior are not so much survival as sensorygratification" (Wyrwicka, 1984, p. 502). Given that what is most pleasurable to thesenses is not always what is best for the survival of one's genes, often these twodrives contradict each other. For example, smoking crack and participating indangerous sports are two popular activities despite the hazards they pose to one'slife. Obviously, Darwinism is more accepted than operant conditioning. Bycontradicting Darwin's ideas, Skinner's operant conditioning theory loses much ofthe support Skinner hoped to gain with his parallels (Wyrwicka, 1984, pp.501-502).

Failure to show adequate generalizability in human behavior. Althoughmany experiments have been done showing evidence of both Pavlovian conditioning andoperant conditioning, all of these experiments have been based on animals and theirbehavior. K. Boulding (1984) questions Skinner's application of principles ofanimal behavior to the much more complex human behavior. In using animals assubstitutes for humans in the exploration of human behavior, Skinner is making thebig assumption that general laws relating to the behavior of animals can be appliedto describe the complex relations in the human world. If this assumption provesfalse, then the entire foundation upon which behaviorism rests will come crashingdown. More experiments with human participants must be done to prove the validityof this theory (Boulding, 1984 pp. 483-484).

Inability to explain the development of human language. AlthoughSkinner's ideas on operant conditioning are able to explain phobias and neurosis,they are sadly lacking in applicability to the more complex human behaviors oflanguage and memory. The theory's inability to explain the language phenomenon hasin fact drawn a large number of critics to dismiss the theory. Although Skinner hasresponded to the criticism, his arguments remain weak and relatively unproven. Whereas public objective stimuli act as operational stimuli for the verbalresponses, private stimuli or concepts such as "I'm hungry" are harder to explain. According to Skinner, the acquisition of verbal responses for private stimuli can beexplained in four ways. First, he claims that private stimuli and the community donot need a connection. As long as there are some sort of public stimuli that can beassociated with the private stimuli, a child can learn. Also, the public can deducethe private stimuli through nonverbal signs, such as groaning and facialexpressions. However this association of public and private events can often bemisinterpreted. His third theory that certain public and private stimuli areidentical gives a very short list of identical stimuli, and his final theory thatprivate stimuli can be generalized to public stimuli with coinciding characteristicsgives very inaccurate results (Skinner, 1984a, pp. 511-517).

M. E. P. Seligman offers an interesting alternative to Skinner's weakexplanation of language. He explains that although operational and classicalconditioning are important, there is a third principle involved in determining thebehavior of an organism. This is the genetic preparedness of an organism toassociate certain stimuli or reinforcers to responses. An organism brings with itto an experiment certain equipment and tendencies decided by genetics, which causecertain conditioned stimuli and unconditioned stimuli to be more or less associable.Therefore, the organism is more or less prepared by evolution to relate the twostimuli. Seligman classifies these tendencies towards association into threecategories: Prepared or easily able to associate two stimuli, unprepared or somewhatdifficult to associate two stimuli , and contraprepared or unable to associate twostimuli. The problem with behaviorists, he argues, is that they have mainlyconcentrated their experiments on unprepared sets of stimuli such as lights andshock. They provide the small amount of input needed for the unprepared associationto take place and then create laws that generalize unprepared behavior to all typesbehavior. Thus, although the behaviorist laws may hold true for the unprepared setsof stimuli tested in labs, they have trouble explaining behaviors that are prepared(Seligman, 1970, pp. 406-408).

In order to prove his theory, Seligman gives an example of an experimentconducted by Rozin and Garcia (1971) in which rats were fed saccharine tasting waterwhile bright light flashed and noise sounded. At the same time, the rats weretreated with X-ray radiation to cause nausea and illness. When the rats became illa few hours later, they acquired an aversion to saccharine tasting water but not tolight or noise. According to Seligman (1970), evolution had prepared the rats toassociate taste with illness, but had contraprepared the association betweennoise/light and illness (pp. 411-412).

When Seligman's theory of preparedness is applied to the language problem, itgives a plausible solution. Language is simply composed of well-prepared stimulithat are easily able to create relationships between verbal words and ideas orobjects. In fact, they are so easy that often there is extremely little inputneeded for the associations to be made. But if this theory is taken as the truth,which it cannot be without further research, then this implies that there is agenetic factor that along with the environment creates personality. This rejectsthe comprehensive behaviorism theory so espoused by Skinner and his collaborators(Seligman, 1970, pp. 416-417).

Applications of a Valid Behaviorist Theory

The evidence shown, particularly that of language, points to the failure ofbehaviorism as a comprehensive theory. However, there is nothing that deniesbehaviorism is valid when limited to certain areas of psychology. Given thatnumerous experiments have shown there is merit in the behaviorist theory, certainideas of this theory can be used in the treatment of disorders.

With the ideas of behaviorism, vast improvements can be made in the treatment ofneurosis and phobias. Rather than focusing on the root of the problem like atraditional psychopathologist, a behaviorist could focus on eliminating the symptomby bringing classical and operant conditioning into play. By reinforcing theextinction of the symptom, the psychopathological illness of the patient could beeliminated (Schwartz & Lacy, 1982, pp. 194-196).

Vast improvements could also be made in the areas of treating alcoholism andnicotine addiction. Using Pavlovian principles, addiction occurs because of boththe pleasurable physiological effects of nicotine and alcohol, unconditionedstimuli, and the taste of nicotine and alcohol, conditioned stimuli. When one stopsingesting the substance, as in traditional treatment procedures, it is extremelyeasy to become addicted again. After all, "simply not presenting a conditionedstimulus does not eliminate the relation between it and the unconditioned stimuli"(Schwartz & Lacy, 1982, p. 197). With just one use, the taste and unconditionedpleasurable effects become associated with each other again. However, if the tasteof nicotine or alcohol, the conditioned response, is paired with a new unpleasanteffect such as nausea and vomiting, the result will be a negative aversion to thesubstances in question. Such was the case when both an old alcoholic man and ayoung chain smoking adolescent were given apomorphine paired with alcohol andnicotine, respectively. The drug apomorphine induced severe feelings of nausea andvomiting which caused both of them to give up these addictive substances for life. This process is called counterconditioning and has had remarkable success in curingaddictions (Schwartz & Lacy, 1982, pp. 196-200).

Conclusion: On the Theory of Behaviorism

The criticisms posed by this paper have long plagued the theory of behaviorismand prevented it from being truly acceptable by most scientists. In fact, todaythere are very few scientists who believe that the behaviorist theory is ascomprehensive as it was once thought to be. In spite of the holes in the theory, there can be no doubt as to the usefulness of the research done in the field ofbehaviorism. One cannot totally dismiss the effect the environment has on behaviornor the role it plays in developing personality as shown through this research. Indeed, when the theory of behaviorism is applied to combat certain disorders, theresults have shown it to be remarkably effective. Therefore, although comprehensivebehaviorism must be abandoned, its ideas cannot be ignored when applied to certainsituations.


Beecroft, R. S. (1966). Method in classical conditioning. In R. S. Beecroft,Classical conditioning (pp. 8-26). Goleta, CA: Psychonomic Press.

Boulding, K. E. (1984). B. F. Skinner: A dissident view. Behavioral andBrain Sciences, 7, 483-484.

Dahlbom, B. (1984). Skinner, selection, and self-control. Behavioral andBrain Sciences, 7, 484-486.

Kamin, L. J. (1969). Predictability, surprise, attention and conditioning. InB. A. Campbell & R. M. Church (Eds.), Punishment and aversive behavior. NewYork: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Mischel, W. (1993). Behavioral conceptions. In W. Mischel, Introduction topersonality (pp. 295-316). New York: Harcourt Brace.

Rescorla, R. A. (1988). Pavlovlian conditioning: It's not what you think itis. American Psychologist, 43, 151-160.

Rescorla, R. A., & Solomon, R. L. (1967). Two-process learning theory: Relations between Pavlovian conditioning and instrumental learning. Psychological Review, 74, 151-182.

Rozin, P., & Garcia, J. (1971). Specific hungers and poison avoidance asadaptive specializations of learning. Psychological Review, 78, 459-486.

Schwartz, B., & Lacey, H. (1982). Behaviorism, science, and humannature. New York: Norton.

Seligman, M. E. P. (1970). On the generality of the laws of learning. Psychological Review, 77, 406-418.

Skinner, B. F. (1931). The concept of the reflex in the description ofbehavior. Journal of General Psychology, 5, 427-458.

Skinner, B. F. (1984a). Operational analysis of psychological terms. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 7, 511-517.

Skinner, B. F. (1984b). Selection by consequences. Behavioral and BrainSciences, 7, 477-481.

Wyrwicka, W. (1984). Natural selection and operant behavior. Behavioral andBrain Sciences, 7, 501-502.


Reinforcement Theory is based on the work of B.F. Skinner, also known as Operant Conditioning. Stimuli are applied or taken away to increase or decrease a desired behavior. Positive refers to the application of stimuli and negative refers to the removal of stimuli. Reinforcement seeks to increase a target behavior and punishment seeks to decrease a behavior. Stimuli are applied at specific times known as schedules. These can be applied at fixed or variable intervals (ex: every day) or ratios (ex. every sixth trial). (Penn State)

The chart below describes each type of conditioning and how it is used. 


PA Counseling Services is a fairly new company in the State College Area. They provide counseling services for individuals and families on a range of topics including savings counseling (for people who are trying to save money), educational counseling (for those who are trying to get back in school), marriage counseling (for those who are having trouble with their marriage), child counseling (just with the child or the whole family), financial counseling (for those who need help with their finances) etc.

Employees are paid for each client they book. They are not given incentives for completing a case. Clients are able to book a counselor online or by walking into the office at least a day before their desired appointment. PA Counseling's employees have an outstanding record of providing counseling services to their clients. In a recent survey they received a 98% on their resources, employee knowledge of their area of expertise, and their positive attitude, and an A in a local newspaper on the outstanding services they provide to the community. However, in the same survey and newspaper they received a B and some comments about the tardiness of their employees. PA Counseling Services has had a problem with their employees coming to work on time. There have been multiple occasions where their clients have had to wait from 30 minutes to over 2 hours for their the counselor to arrive. This has been an issue since the office opened last year, but has gotten progressively worse and is beginning to effect the reputation of the company. The majority of the company has familites with small children. These employees feel that there is no incentive to come to work early because they are not paid by the hour or by completed case. 

Positive Reinforcements

“Positive Reinforcements are favorable events or outcomes that are presented after the behavior. In situations that reflect positive reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or a direct reward” (K. Cherry, 2014) Positive reinforcements use the reward system. The reward system is a process in which individuals or animals are rewarded with something positive after completing a task. Rewards could include but are not limited to compliments, money, paid for time off, food, gifts, treats, public acknowledgement, recognition and so much more. 

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When employees show up late to work on a regular basis, punishment is not needed. Instead, employers should reward employees who are punctual. A specific task that many people face on a daily basis is being punctual. How often are you late for things? Are you prepared to arrive where needed at the expected time?

To define punctual:




  1. strictly observant of an appointed or regular time; not late; prompt.
  2. made, occurring, etc., at the scheduled or proper time: punctual payment.
  3. pertaining to or of the nature of a point.
  4. punctilious. 

(Dictionary.com, 2014) 

Most individuals have a time and place that they need to arrive at daily. In many cases, individuals arrive late. Some situations and career choices do not see the effects of individuals arriving late but there are some that do. Arriving late can cause issues for others involved. When the expectation of showing up to work on time just isn’t enough – individuals could and/or should be rewarded for showing up to work on time. A momentum that shows the company’s appreciation for the employees that are punctual and arrive to work on time and in some cases, early. Some examples of rewards that could be given to punctual individuals include earned time for personal days, first choice at tasks that others may not want to complete, paid breakfast or lunch, gift card, acknowledge in a company email, movie tickets and leaving early on a Friday. A system should be put into place to honor these rewards - weekly, monthly or quarterly. 

The positive reinforcement needs to be exciting or appreciated enough to motivate individuals to continue such a behavior on a regular basis which would become the normal. According to B.F. Skinner, “positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding” (McLeod, 2014 – speaking of BF Skinner)

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Negative Reinforcements

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Negative Reinforcement for the employees of PA Counseling Services can come from many fronts. Most of these are occurring from natural consequences. Negative Reinforcement is the removal stimuli that strengthens a desired behavior (Kanazawa, 2010). The most important behavior to strengthen in this instance is being on time. One instance of negative reinforcement that would strengthen an employees resolve to be there on time is the removal social stigma at work. Angry glares or comments from clients, coworkers and supervisors can be upsetting. Removing these would reinforce the target behavior. Another example of negative reinforcement is the fact that when an employee comes to work on time, he then gets home earlier. This removes the negative stimuli of being rushed, harried or leaving loved ones disappointed. This is something that as a supervisor in PA Counseling Services I would stress, particularly as most employees have families at  home. The "B" rating itself is a negative stimulus that would be removed if the employees to work on time. There are many small things about a workplace that can serve as negative reinforcers. PA Counseling Services could have free coffee and pastries that are only served until 8:30 am. The irritation of going through the morning sans coffee or having to spend their own money on pricey coffee is the stimulus that is removed.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is the presentation of an unpleasant stimulus with the proposed result of decreasing an undesirable behavior. This is type of punishment we most commonly associatewith doing something bad or getting in trouble. An example of this is a boss verbally reprimanding an employee for poor performance or in this case, showing up to work late on a regular basis.

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"It is estimated that 83 percent of companies use some form of punishment or the threat of punishment" (Beyer & Trice, 1984). Companies have multiple ways to elicit positive punishment to tardy employes. These can consist of verbal or written warnings, deduction of pay or having to stay longer at work to make up for the lost time.

There are drawbacks to using positive punishment that could influence its effectiveness. Punishment should be given immediately after the undesired action so that the employee can directly associate the punishment with what they did wrong.Also, an employer should never punish an employee in the presence of other employees. This can cause humiliation, embarrassment and other undesirable emotional reactions.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment is removing what employees like when they have performed an undesired behavior. It withdraws a pleasant stimulus with the goal of decreasing the frequency of the undesired behavior. In other words, it is punishment by removal.

In PA Counseling employees are paid by the number of people who book appointments with them. An example of negative punishment would be switching clients to another counselor when the desired counselor was late to their scheduled appointment. This removes the important stimulus of the pay they would have received for that booking. This would decrease the frequency of the undesired behavior of being late because the counselors want to keep as many clients as possible, in order to maximize their pay.

Other smaller examples of negative punishment would be removing allowed vacation days, decreasing employee benefits, or even decreasing pay of a tardy employee.

Negative punishment, according to the lecture, is most effective when it is given immediately and consistently. The punishment should be given the day that the employee was late. Alternate behavior must be specified as well in order for negative punishment to be effective. In this case, PA Counseling would explain to the late employee that they are being punished for their tardiness, and to instruct them to arrive on time to their appointments. The punishment must remain consistent for the undesirable behavior. It must be administered every time the employee is late, and to every employee so that the punishment is fair among all employees. Having an inconsistent punishment can be ineffective, and the undesirable behavior will most likely return.


B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist who proposed the Reinforcement Theory (Operant Conditioning) through his studies of the external working environment so an organization can help shape employees’ behaviors to suit their desired needs.  PA Counseling Services can use reinforcement and punishments to curb their employees’ tardiness by increasing desired behaviors or by decreasing unwanted ones, so it does not affect their clients.  After evaluating their current policies, PA Counseling Services realized that their workers lacked motivation to show up to work on time because their pay was not hourly or based on caseloads. Their tardiness has become progressively worse as clients are left waiting thirty to over two hours waiting on a counselor.  Tardiness is an undesirable behavior to the employer and they seek a resolution to this matter.  Reinforcement can be given both as positive or negative stimuli to achieve the desired behavior by using the following four methods of Operant Conditioning: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, or negative punishment.

Positive reinforcement was used by PA Counseling Services through their new incentive program which allowed employees who show up to work early can have the first choice on caseloads. This not only motivated some employees to increase their punctuality but began encouraging some of them to show up fifteen minutes earlier so they can have their desired pick.  A monthly pool was also started where punctual employees could have their names placed into a drawing for a chance to win a $15 gift card.  A rewards program did excite some of the employees and strengthened the desired behavior, but PA Counseling management was still noticing that the rewards program did not encourage all to be timely.

Negative reinforcements would be the next implemented step in encouraging punctuality. Management tried to remove the stigma attached to employees feeling rushed, as if they were neglecting their loved ones. Employees who came in before 8:30am would receive a free coffee and a pastry. The new program would help employees to feel encouraged and empowered to come into work early and have breakfast. Employees did not respond as well to these stimuli and only a few employees took advantage of this program…the tardiness continued.

Positive punishment was the next step for PA Counseling Services as they created a new policy which included a verbal warning for the first tardy, a written warning for the second tardy, and a deduction in pay for the third tardy. A sharp turnaround in punctuality would take place when employees feared a loss of pay. Management was swift at implementation as they privately spoke to the late employees and dealt out their punishments. 

The final step for PA Counseling Services’ new policy plan for alleviating tardiness was to remove the stimulus of pay to employees who missed their client’s appointment. The cases would be removed from the late employee and switched to another available counselor. Pay would be removed and only given to employees who were on time for their clients. The punishment stimuli was administered privately and immediately after the undesired behavior.  They also noticed that consistency was a very important factor in reinforcing the appropriate working behaviors.  The Reinforcement Theory is a good general application tool for employers, but they must also keep in mind that employees are motivated by many factors.  B. F. Skinner’s theory does not account for the individual employee’s inner behaviors.


Beyer, J., & Trice, H. M. (1984). A field study on the use and perceived effects of discipline in controlling work performance. Academy of Management Journal, 27, 743-754.

Kanazawa, S. (2010). Common Misconceptions about Science VI: "Negative Reinforcement." Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-scientific-fundamentalist/201001/common-misconceptions-about-science-vi-negative-reinforcem

Penn State World Campus Commentary (2014) Lesson 3: Reinforcement Theory: What are the Rewards for my Work? Retrieved from: courses.worldcampus.psu.edu/su14/psych484/001/content/lesson03/lesson03_01.html.

McLeod, 2014. Skinner – Operant Conditioning.http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html

Introduction to Operant Conditioning. http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/introopcond.htm

Punctual. Dictionary.com, 2014. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/punctual

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