Difference Between Reinforcement and Punishment

Instrumental conditioning is used by well-known therapists, In which they use Reinforcement and punishment as a tool for reforming the behaviour of their clients.

Apart from therapy, these are used in the field of medicine, and law. People confuse the two terms as synonyms but are very different in application.

Reinforcement vs Punishment

The main difference between Reinforcement and Punishment is that of their application process, though both are methods under operant conditioning, Reinforcement is the process applied to escalate or boost any behaviour performed by the subject, whereas Punishment is the process applied to discourage or limit any behaviour performed by the subject.

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Reinforcement is studied in psychology as the tool for boosting or enhancing the behaviour of a subject. B.F Skinner first expressed this theory in psychology, but it was Edward Thorndike who is credited for testing reinforcement in the laboratory.

It can be applied in both senses, positive or negative.

Punishment is studied in psychology as a tool for restricting the behaviour of a subject.

From a small family in the state to the courts there, punishment is practised as a common tool for reforming the behaviour of the subject in a particular condition. Punishment can be positive or negative.

Comparison Table Between Reinforcement and Punishment

Parameters Of ComparisonReinforcement Punishment
Meaning The process by which behaviour of the subject is encouraged for the future.The process by which behaviour of the subject is discouraged for the future.
Side effectsThe reinforcement process results in fewer side effects than punishment.The punishment process results in more side effects than in reinforcement.
ApplicationIt is being applied in psychology, judiciary, Human resources, child care etc.It is also applied in the judiciary, human resources, child care, traffic penalties etc.
Expressed byBF Skinner and Edward Thorndike expressed reinforcement. BF Skinner expressed the process of punishment in psychology.
Famous Books “Power of reinforcement” by Stephen Ray Flora, “Schedules of reinforcement” by Charles etc. “Psychology of punishment” by Nicholas Castro, “punishment” by Hans von Hentig.

What is Reinforcement?

A psychological process, by which the behaviour of a subject is encouraged for the future. First expressed by BF Skinner in psychology, reinforcement is now being used in every aspect of society.

In psychology, it is used by therapists to encourage their client’s behaviour. In judicial cases, it is used by judges to make sure the victim is provided with enough security.

Reinforcement techniques are being used in the Industrial and cooperative sectors to encourage their employees in attaining higher targets.

Providing bonuses and extra services to employees is a way of reinforcing them. Reinforcement was first tested in the laboratory by Edward Thorndike.

After which mathematical models were being made for studying reinforcement, one of which was “mathematical principles of reinforcement ” by Peter Killen.

This psychological process of enhancing one’s behaviour is being used in two ways. It can be positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement.

In positive reinforcement, the subject is provided with an incentive or appreciation to boost their behaviour. for example, giving bonuses to employees.

But in negative reinforcement, something is charged on the subject, for them to behave accordingly in the future.

For example, employees are charged monthly from their salary for their insurance premiums, this encourages an employee, as they are getting security.

What is Punishment?

A psychological process, by which the behaviour of a subject is limited for the future. Expressed by BF Skinner in psychology, Punishment is very commonly used in every aspect of social life.

A very common example of Punishment is Traffic penalties. The subject is charged with some amount when they break any traffic rules. This discourages them and limits this same behaviour in future.

Apart from penalties and fines, Punishment is commonly used in the judicial system, Criminals are being punished for their crimes. This results in the limitation of further crimes in society.

Punishments are given in Schools to limit any unwanted behaviour of students. For example, punishing a student for coming late to school. In Industries, Employees are charged from their salary for their extra leaves taken.

This psychological process of limiting one’s behaviour is used in two ways, it can be positive punishment or negative punishment. At first, the subject receives something which discourages them to behave similarly in the future.

For example, students receive a suspension of one week from school due to their offensive behaviour. In second, something is taken away from the subject, to discourage future behaviour.

For example, Taking away a child’s favourite toy to teach them a particular lesson.

Main Differences Between Reinforcement and Punishment

  1. A psychological process of encouraging one’s behaviour is called reinforcement whereas a psychological process of limiting one’s behaviour is called punishment.
  2. Reinforcement and punishment both are expressed by BF Skinner, According to him, Reinforcement results in fewer side effects on an individual than in punishment.
  3. Both psychological processes have similar application areas, but goals are different. That is if something is given to a subject, and it limits their behaviour, its punishment. But if it encourages the behaviour, its reinforcement and vice versa.
  4. Various books are written on both topics, For reinforcement two of the famous books are Power of reinforcement and schedules of reinforcement. but for punishment, two famous books are Psychology of punishment and the punishment.
  5. In today’s era, Reinforcement is weighed more than punishment, as it is seen that, punishment reaps results for the short term, but in reinforcement, results last for a longer period.
Difference Between Reinforcement and Punishment


In times when people are getting more aware of psychological terms.

It is necessary to understand the impact of these terms. Reinforcement and Punishment are the terms applied in many sectors of society. These are used to regulate the behaviour of any individual.

Generally, people get confused between these two terms. If we conclude in short, Reinforcement is for encouragement and Punishment is for limiting. Most often people get confused between Negative reinforcement and Punishment.

As both involve taking something from an individual or charging them.

But we need to be very clear on the basic concept that, if that process of taking something away results in encouragement of the behaviour it is Reinforcement, but if it results in Limiting behaviour, it is Punishment.


  1. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1957-02484-001
  2. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1901/jeab.2008.89-157
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