Difference Between Punishment and Negative Reinforcement

Key Difference – Punishment vs Negative Reinforcement

Punishment and negative reinforcement are two terms that come in vocabulary of psychology between which a key difference can be discerned. Of course, punishment has a broader meaning in the society, but there are ways that punishment and negative reinforcement could be related to each other at some instances.First let us define the two words. A punishment is imposing a penalty on someone for an offence. On the other hand, Negative reinforcement is the removal of something which was unpleasant to a person or an animal in order to create a favorable outcome to that person/animal. As you can observe there is a clear difference between the two words as punishment entails imposing a penalty whereas negative reinforcement entails removal of something. Through this article let us examine the differences between the two words.

What is Punishment?

Punishment is defined as “the authoritative imposition of something undesirable or unpleasant on, or the removal of something desirable or pleasant from, a person, animal, organization or entity in response to behavior deemed unacceptable by an individual, group or other entity”. This is also known as penalty. Punishment is needed in various occasions especially in keeping law and order in the society. Other setting for punishment may be family or even school. For one to be considered as a punishment, presence of authority is a must which could be either a person or a group. Any negative outcomes, which are not authorized or are a violation of rules, are not considered punishment.

The study of Punishment of crimes is known as penology or modernly correction process. Four justifications of punishment could be identified as retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitations. Incapacitation is where the wrong doer is kept away from the potential victims. Apart from retribution, other three outcomes cannot be guaranteed because they depend on the individual’s effort that is being punished. Punishment varies in severity. If a person is punished severely for something which deserves less punishment, it is not socially acceptable or ethical. Therefore in such cases, human rights associations can come in to rescue. Different types of punishments which are used these days are sanctions, deprivation of privileges, fines, infliction of pain, or even the death penalty. Death penalty being used as a means of punishment is questioned over the years and still not accepted by the whole society in unison.

Difference Between Punishment and Negative Reinforcement

What is Negative Reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement is the removal of something which was unpleasant to a person or an animal in order to create a favorable outcome to that person/animal. This term is used in applied behavior analysis, to observe how people/animals react to the presence and absence of things and how to train/ practice behaviors accordingly. The thing which is withdrawn is known as “stimulus” which can be a thing, a person, a sensation, or even an emotion.

The idea of negative reinforcement is to promote behavior which leads to the frequent occurrence of the favorable outcome in the future. For an instance, if we switch off the light in the room before someone fall asleep, and if that person feels dark is better when sleeping he/she may make a habit out of it to switch off the light before going to sleep. The word “negative” is incorporated to this because it is done by subtracting something.

Punishment vs Negative Reinforcement

What is the difference between Punishment and Negative Reinforcement?

Definitions of Punishment and Negative Reinforcement:

Punishment: Punishment imposes something undesirable on a person/animal to correct an unacceptable behavior.

Negative Reinforcement: Negative reinforcement is withdrawal of something unpleasant to a person/animal to increase the person engaging in a behavior which gives a favorable outcome.

Characteristics of Punishment and Negative Reinforcement:


Punishment: An act of imposing takes place.

Negative Reinforcement: An act of removal takes place.


Punishment: As punishment creates unpleasant memories it is not recommended.

Negative Reinforcement: When training a child/pet negative reinforcement is preferred to punishment because it does not create any unpleasant memories or bad feelings, which may affect personality/behavior in general at a later stage.


Image Courtesy:

1. “StateLibQld 1 113036 Cartoon of students receiving the cane, 1888” by Contributor(s): Queensland figaro – Copied and digitised from an image appearing in Queensland figaro, 28 July 1888, p. 140.. [Public Domain] via Commons

2. “Skamvrån av Carl Larsson 1894” by Carl Larsson – Carl Larsson. Skildrad av honom själv, page 167, Stockholm: Bonniers 1952. ISBN 9915140819. [Public Domain] via Commons