Posted on 26 September, 2016

Does Positive Punishment Work to Achieve Your Health Goals?

By Jacob Andreae in Mindset, Change, Health Does Positive Punishment Work to Achieve Your Health Goals?

[Image Source: Michael Coghlan]

Positive punishment is just one way humans shape behaviour. Punishment is to make a behaviour less likely to occur and the positive component is about giving something. Can giving an aversive consequence to a non-desirable behaviour help you achieve your health goals?

In psychology, there are four components that make a behaviour either more likely or less likely to occur. They make up what’s known in learning and motivation as operant conditioning. These include:

Negative Reinforcement
Positive Reinforcement
Negative Punishment
Positive Punishment

Negative = take something away
Positive = give something

Reinforcement = make a behaviour more likely to occur again
Punishment = make a behaviour less likely to occur again

The most popular of these four, and what we’ll discuss in more depth here, are positive reinforcement and positive punishment. Positive reinforcement is to give something in order to make it more likely that that behaviour occurs again. A common example is money. Positive punishment is to give something in order to make it less likely that that behaviour occurs again. A well-known example is smacking.

All forms of operant conditioning come after a behaviour has been performed. Reinforcement comes after a desirable behaviour and punishment comes after a non-desirable behaviour.

There has been a colossal amount of research conducted on the most effective form of operant conditioning. The purpose being to establish which of the four types of operant conditioning create desirable behaviours in the most effective way. It’s been shown time and time again that positive reinforcement achieves much greater results than positive punishment. Therefore, rewarding yourself for a desirable behaviour is more effective than punishing yourself for a non-desirable behaviour.

Positive reinforcement encourages you to seek out further opportunities to perform desirable behaviours.

Positive punishment does still work. It’s often the easiest to use. It’s just not the best. It’s a part of the way your mind works. You’re mind is hard-wired to seek out opportunities that are pleasurable and avoid situations that are painful. All four components of operant conditioning are based on this simple pain and pleasure response. The purpose being to keep you alive, safe and supported by your social network.

If you’re working towards a health goal, you can establish a range of positive punishments for when and if you make a non-desirable action or non-action. If your goal is to lose weight and you decide to eat a big bowl of ice cream with lollies and chocolate, you might punish yourself by making yourself eat something you absolutely hate, like oysters (if you hate them). If your goal is to get fitter for an upcoming season of sport and you miss a training session, you might punish yourself by making yourself scrub the public toilets at work.

You can use positive punishment sparingly but not all the time. Instead, focus on providing positive reinforcement for the things you do well. Establish a range of positive reinforcements for when you make desirable actions and non-actions. Using the goals above, you can reward yourself with money (saving for something bigger), massage, new clothing, volunteering, whatever you desire. The sooner after the behaviour you reward yourself, the better.

In summary, positive punishment does work to modify behaviour but it is not the most effective. It doesn’t instil a desire to search for more opportunities to repeat that behaviour like positive reinforcement does. Use positive reinforcement as the most effective way to repeat desirable behaviours.

What strategies do you use to make desirable behaviours more likely to occur again?

About Jacob Andreae

About Jacob Andreae

I write and speak about Fitness, Nutrition and Mindset. 

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Does Positive Punishment Work to Achieve Your Health Goals?A quick start guide to losing weight and staying on track. Learn the strategies I use to eat and move for optimal health. Includes worksheets to enhance your motivation, commitment and discipline, along with a sample eating plan and exercise program.