This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 05 table of contents.

Response Cost ("Negative Punishment")

Response cost or negative punishment is another way to make behavior less frequent. It is therefore a form of punishment. It occurs when a stimulus is taken away as a consequence of behavior and the effect is to reduce the frequency of the behavior. The word "negative" in "negative punishment" comes from the fact that a stimulus is removed.

What is response cost or negative punishment? How are penalties negative punishment?

In general, any time you use the word penalty you are talking about response cost. A speeding ticket is a negative reinforcer. Your money is taken away to reduce the frequency of speeding behavior. This is a form of punishment because it is a stimulus that makes the behavior it follows less frequent in the future. Technically it is negative punishment because a stimulus is removed or subtracted as a form of punishment. The alternative label-response cost- is perhaps more intuitive. It labels the fact that a response (such as driving too fast) "costs" you.

Extinction and response cost both make a behavior less frequent by taking away something good. The distinction between them is fairly subtle, but here it is. In extinction the reinforcer that maintains a behavior is withheld. This means the behavior has been analyzed and the reinforcer causing the behavior has been identified and taken away. That produces extinction. An example would be extinguishing the bar press operant by turning off the food dispenser in a Skinner Box.

How is extinction distinguished from response cost? Why is a speeding ticket response cost rather than extinction? How would you extinguish speeding?

Response cost, by contrast, involves any valued stimulus being removed, whether or not it caused the behavior. If you get a speeding ticket, your money (a valued stimulus) is taken away from you. However, the money was probably not the reason you were speeding. Therefore a speeding ticket is categorized as response cost (negative punishment) rather than extinction.

How would you extinguish speeding? If a person drove fast for thrills, then to extinguish speeding one would have to eliminate the thrills. This might occur naturally if, for example, a person matured and eventually grew bored with driving over the speed limit. The result would be extinction of speeding behavior in that individual.

The usefulness of all these concepts is directly linked to their abstract quality. People have intuitions about what is reinforcing and punishing, and often these intuitions are wrong. By stepping back and analyzing the situation ("Is a stimulus being added or subtracted? Is the behavior getting more frequent or less frequent?") one can categorize the situation and identify a reinforcer or a punisher.

How can analysis of operant behavior produce insights?

For example, you might know somebody who teases you. You respond in a way that you assume will make the teasing stop, for example, by showing some irritation. But if the teasing gets more intense instead of stopping, then your response functioned as reinforcement. Whatever you did, it must be reinforcement because the frequency of teasing increased after the stimulus was applied. Therefore it is time to try something different.

One web site that advertised a dramatic new technique for reducing bullying. The author found that protests by the bullied child were ineffective and actually encouraged more bullying, but he said he had discovered a technique that worked much better. It consisted of teaching a bullied child to react to a bully with friendliness. The author of the web site was not very familiar with behavioral techniques and reacted with astonishment when I mentioned that, technically, his procedure was punishing the bully. To him, punishment had to hurt! In the anti-bullying technique he described, however, the punishing stimulus was friendly behavior, because it reduced the incidence of bullying.

Write to Dr. Dewey at

Don't see what you need? Psych Web has over 1,000 pages, so it may be elsewhere on the site. Do a site-specific Google search using the box below.

Custom Search

Copyright © 2007-2011 Russ Dewey