Psychology 101 – Learning


Punishment –While reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behaviour occurring, punishment does the opposite by decreasing the likelihood of a behaviour occuring. The criminal justice system is grounded on punishment, because they operate on the idea that people are less likely to commit crime if punishment is a consequence, and those that do commit crime are less likely to commit it a second time after serving time in prison.

Like reinforcement, punishment can either be positive or negative, and no, this does not have anything to do with the person’s feelings when receiving the punishment. Rather, positive simply means something is presented, while negative means something is taken away. So an example of positive punishment would be spanking a child for doing something naughty, while negative punishment would be taking the same childs toys away. An example of punishment that is both negative and positive at the same time is being put in time out (or prison), as the child is being given a punishment, and is also being removed from where they originally were. Another example would be spanking a child, while at the same time taking away all their toys – an impressive feat, bound to confuse the hell out of the one being punished.

A problem with using punishment with children and especially animals is that they sometimes don’t know which behaviour is being punished. I once had the displeasure of attending a dog obedience class with my brother’s wife, the room was full of small and yippy dogs that wouldn’t stop yelping and running in circles, and yuppie owners who were either on the phone or desperately trying to contain their animal, much to their own embarrassment. It was a zoo. I did learn a lot about training dogs though, and one thing I learned was dogs don’t know that pooing on your carpet is a bad behaviour. How should they know? It’s not like they can understand our language and strange customs and taboos. Sticking a dogs nose in their own mess is only abusing your dog, as the dog cannot make the association between what it did and what you are doing to it. The dog is confused, and wants to know why it is being so savagely punished for doing who knows what.

Another problem with punishment is that the learner may come to fear the person dishing out the punishment (via classical conditioning) rather than the action (cia operant conditioning). A child who is harshly punished by his father, for example, may become afraid of his father instead of changing his behaviour.


Operant conditioning occurs in everyday social interaction without even being aware of it, people constantly use reinforcement and punishment to mould others behaviour. Consider if your friend got a job for example, you would positively reinforce him by giving him words of encouragement, as you would see this as a positive behaviour. If your friend did something you considered to be bad, you would punish (not physically I hope!) by telling them that they didn’t do the right thing. This is how social interaction works, if no one got told off for doing something bad, or commended for doing something good, then people would grow up without any direction.

It’s often a two way street as well, take for example parents who punish their child for doing something wrong. If the punishment results in the child not doing the behaviour anymore, then the child is negatively reinforcing their parent’s punishing behaviour. The parents will condition the child to associate doing the bad behaviour with being punished, so they will stop doing it, but at the same time the parents are being conditioned to punish the child every time it does something bad, as they have been negatively reinforced to associate punishment with the removal of an unpleasant situation (the child’s naughty behaviour)!

Schedules of Reinforcement – Yes, reinforcement has a schedule, a very busy one. There are two main types of schedules of reinforcement, they are:

  1. continuous reinforcement schedule – when a subject is reinforced after every behaviour they produce.
  2. partial reinforcement schedule – when a subject is reinforced only some of the time.

Continuous reinforcement is most effective during the acquisition phase of operant conditioning, while partial (or intermittent) reinforcement is more effective in maintaining learned behaviours. For example, initially it is necessary to give a dog a treat every time it performs a trick, but after a while it is necessary to give it a treat only some of the time, so that it doesn’t know when to expect a future treat, therefore strengthening the behaviour in anticipation of a treat.

reinforcement scheduleAnother example would be praising a student’s work, initially it is helpful to praise all of their good work, but after a while the student would recognise the pattern and would place less value on the praise, after the conditioning has been set, the student’s good behaviour will be better maintained if he only gets words of encouragement some of the time, so the praise holds more value and the student will strive for more praise. The same applies to grades, if a student got A’s for every assignment they handed in, they wouldn’t place any value in getting A’s and their quality of work would drop.

Partial reinforcement schedules are further divided into ratio schedules and interval schedules. In ratio schedules, rewards (or punishments) are tied to the number of responses produced; only a fraction of ‘correct’ behaviours receive reinforcement. While in interval schedules, rewards (or punishments) are delivered only after some interval of time, no matter how many responses the organism produces.

Fixed-ratio (FR) schedules are when an organism (heh) receives reinforcement for a fixed proportion of the responses it emits. For example, a telemarketer receives reinforcement (bonus) for every sale they make (FR-1 schedule), while a girl scout receives reinforcement (a badge) for every 10 boxes of cookies they sell (FR-10 schedule). In regards to punishment, a child could be punished on a FR-1 schedule (punished after every example of bad behaviour) or on say a FR-3 schedule (punished after every 3rd example of bad behaviour).

Variable-ratio (VR) schedules are when an organism receives a reward for some percentage of responses, but the number of responses required before reinforcement is unpredictable (that is, variable). For example, when fishing you will not be rewarded with a fish every time you cast your line into the water, but on some occasions you will be. Gambling also works on a variable-ratio, especially slot machines, which are expected to pay out at a variable ratio, you don’t know when it might be, but the next coin you put in might be a winner. In regards to punishment, a variable-ratio schedule would be used with an unpredictable parent with mood swings, the child is uncertain when his or her behaviours will be punished.

Fixed-interval (FI) schedules are when an organism receives reinforcement for its responses only after a fixed amount of time. For example, you can work as many or as little hours in a week, but you will only get paid on a certain day. Fixed-interval schedules also operate in accordance with lunch hours at school, as you only get a break at a certain time every day. An example of a fixed-interval schedule in punishment would be getting spanked every day at 9 o clock.

Variable-interval (VI) schedules differ from fixed-interval schedules in that the organism cannot predict how long the time interval will be when they receive reinforcement. A VI-10 schedule for example could mean reinforcement occuring at intervals of roughly 10 minutes apart, but not exactly 10 minutes. An example of a variable-interval schedule would be a safety inspection, it is known that the safety inspector will come during the afternoon, but at which time is uncertain, so staff are on high alert the whole day in anticipation – this is why a variable-interval schedule is more effective than a fixed-interval schedule. Another example would be a cable guy or plumber or anyone who comes to fix something in your house, they usually say they’ll come during a variable interval of hours, for example any time between 12-3. An example of this schedule in punishment might be an abusive alcoholic husband coming home from the pub to yell at his wife, the wife is unsure of when exactly he will be home to yell at her, but she still expects his return at a variable interval of hours – maybe after 2 hours of drinking, or 3 or 4…

In some situations, a connection might exist between a behaviour and a consequence, psychologists call this a response contingency, as the consequence is dependent, or contingent, on the behaviour. In other situations however, the contingencies might be different, so the organism needs to be able to discriminate circumstances under which different contingencies apply. For example, it might be ok to smoke inside the house while you’re parents are away, but when they are home that behaviour will definitely result in punishment. A stimulus that signals the presence of particular contingencies of reinforcement is called a discriminative stimulus. In other words, the organism learns to produce certain actions only in the presence of the discriminative stimulus. For the child smoking at home, the discriminative stimulus would be the presence of parents.

Stimulus discrimination is one of the keys to the complexity and flexibility of human and animal behaviour. Behaviour therapists, who apply behaviourist principles to maladaptive behaviours, use the concept of stimulus discrimination to help people recognise and alter some very subtle triggers for maladaptive responses, particularly in relationships. For example, one couple was on the verge of divorce because the husband complained that his wife was too passive, while the wife complained that her husband was too controlling. A careful behavioural analysis of their interactions suggested some complex contingencies controlling their behaviour.

At times, the woman would detect a particular tone in her husband’s voiuce that she has associated with his getting angrey; upon hearing that tone, she would shut down and become more passive and quiet. Her husband found this passivity enraging and would then begin to demand answers and decisions from her, which only intensified her passivity and his controlling behaviour. The woman was not always passive, and the man was not always controlling, but the discriminative stimulus of the husband’s tone caused the wife to withdraw because she had associated it with anger, through operant conditioning. Easing the tension in the marriage therefore required isolating the discriminative stimuli that controlled each of their unwanted responses.

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9 thoughts on “Psychology 101 – Learning

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  2. Very nice reading! I really like the whole concept of learning and it’s quite useful as well.. Have you ever heard about Pavlov’s children?
    Some quite disturbing experiments done on children in the same manner as on the dogs..
    Check it out.


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