Reinforcement vs Punishment: from Animal Training to Theology



Ever felt “positively punished” when your dog-trainer or psychologist inundate you with these lingo? Reinforcement and punishment are important components of social interactions. They are most often discussed in context of those wielding authority and their subjects (e.g., in childrearing and animal training); occasionally to interactions between equals. However, these concepts speak even to unexpected territories such as the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of theology.

I apologise for the lack of citations. I have been a pet trainer for a dozen years, and I am afraid I won’t be able to accurate cite where I first learned what at this point!


First, let’s tackle them in bite-size pieces.

Punishment versus Reinforcement

  • Punishment: To decrease the probability of a behaviour occurring in the future—it discourages the target behaviour.
  • Reinforcement: To increase the probability of a behaviour occurring in the future—it encourages the target behaviour.

“Positive” vs. “Negative”

  • Positive: when something is added, or introduced.
  • Negative: when something is subtracted, or removed.

Now onto the combos:

Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement

  • Positive reinforcement: To introduce something desirable to increase the probability of the target behaviour in the future.
  • Negative reinforcement: To remove something undesirable to increase the probability of the target behaviour in the future.

Positive Punishment vs. Negative Punishment

  • Positive Punishment: To introduce something undesirable after a behaviour to reduce the probability of the target behaviour in the future.
  • Negative Punishment: To remove something desirable after a behaviour to reduce the probability of the target behaviour in the future.

Ah, a table.

A common-sense way to organise this information is as follow, which box does it fit in?











What a wife might do to get her husband to take the trash out!

Disclaimer: These are execrated examples for comical effects; they are not instructions as to how should one conduct oneself in a marriage!!

What reinforcement/punishments do the following strategies utilise? Click on the example to reveal the answers.

[expand title=”1. When husband forgets to take the trash out, wife pouts for 2 hours.”]

  • Positive Punishment: By introducing her pouting (something undesirable), she decreases the probability of him forgetting to take out the trash in the future.


[expand title=”2. When husband forgets to take the trash out, wife erases his TV recordings.”]

  • Negative Punishment: By erasing his TV recordings (removing something desirable), she decreases the probability of him forgetting to take out the trash in the future.


[expand title=”3. When husband takes the trash out, wife cooks his favourite dessert.”]

  • Positive reinforcement: By introducing the fulfilling experience of his favourite dessert (something desirable), she increases the probability of him taking out the trash in the future.


[expand title=”4. Wife withholds dinner until husband takes the trash out, then she feeds him.”]

  • Negative reinforcement: By serving dinner she removes hunger (something undesirable) after he takes out the trash, she increases the probability of him taking out the trash in the immediate future.


Answer Table (though there are always ways to debate it as I will demonstrate below)









How we can morph them, one into another!

As you can see, though in definitions they seem cut and dry, the differences between the three concepts can be very subtle. Next, I am going to thoroughly confuse you with the goal to make you feel better about having trouble distinguishing the concepts, and hopefully to clarify the most subtle distinctions between them.

How the positive punishment example can turn into negative reinforcement

  • Later in the evening, the husband realises why his wife was pouting. He then takes out the trash to bring peace back into the house. The wife then ceases pouting, thus turning the event into a negative reinforcement. She removes her pouting (something undesirable) to increase the probability of him taking out the trash!

How the positive reinforcement example can turn into a negative reinforcement

  • If the wife had withheld cooking the dessert until the husband takes the trash out. To remove his dessert craving (something undesirable), the husband takes out the trash.

How the negative reinforcement example can turn into punishment

  • Let’s say the husband refuses to take out the trash on account that his wife is holding dinner hostage, as he considers it quite an inhumane treatment. The wife sticks to her words and does not serve dinner. The wife believes by doing so, her husband will henceforth be less likely to forget taking out the trash in order to avoid going to bed hungry and having strife in the house (the punishments).
  • Or as my husband Joshua says, he is being negatively reinforced to make his own sandwiches.

Fun, eh?

Example: Negative Reinforcement in Animal Training

In zoos and conservatories, it is often difficult to be physically close enough to a naïve animal to train them via positive reinforcement. Punishments, on the other hand, often cause them to become increasingly aggressive.

In order to minister to them, their handlers often begin with negative reinforcement. For example, an unpleasant thing that could be removed is the handlers’ own presence, the behaviours to be encouraged/increased is “not running away.”

For example, a handler may begin by standing 50 feet from his wild llama, as long as the llama does not spit or run away, after several seconds, the handler walk away. Removing the unpleasant stimuli (the human being) to encourage the desirable behaviour (llama not running away and not spitting).

This is often combined with the technique known as “shaping.” Shaping is a gradual training technique with small incremental goals. For example, the handler will slowly decrease the distance and/or increase the duration of his presence until he can touch  the llama. It is often an amusing process for the observers, as the handler must not remove himself even when the llama spits at him—else the handler would be negatively reinforcing the spitting behaviour!

Example: Biblical Christian Theology vs. Popular False Doctrines

It should now be abundantly clear which of these three techniques, at least in human interactions, would foster affection and genuine desires for modification, and which fosters resentment, begrudging submission, and potential future rebellion.

Being a Biblical Christian is so much a part of me that, as an author, I am unable to discuss these concepts without providing examples that are of utmost meaning and importance to me. As these discussions do not reflect the viewpoints of many of my colleagues in PsychologyInAction, I have posted them on my personal blog.

There I will discuss the biblical, grace-based theology as being driven by positive reinforcement, prosperity “gospel” as negative reinforcement driven, and work-based theology as punishment driven.

More Food For Thought

– Law enforcement practices are almost entirely based on punishment.

– Much of self-esteem literature is based on negative reinforcement.

– Combining shaping and positive reinforcement I once taught a naïve kitten, in 25 minutes, to sit, stay, and stop batting at the treat. Unfortunately I was in my PJs in that video, so while it is fun to show friends, it is not appropriate for posting on the Internet. When I can get my hands on another naïve cat (and manage to dress more formally) I will write another post on it—those who live near UCLA are encouraged to volunteer their cats! I have absolutely no prejudice against dogs or other animals, but people seem more convinced when cats can be trained. 😀