My word comparisons have inevitably reflected my own interests– more than I had initially intended. I am a psychology major in my senior year, and so it seems natural for my education to reflect in my work and personal interests. I remember in Psychology 101 how difficult it was to distinguish between using punishment and using reinforcement to influence behavior. Still, I have a hard time pinpointing the distinction. This may be a little bit different kind of challenge, but let’s see if digging down to the roots will offer any insight…


The English word punishment started with Ancient Greek ποινή or poine (“penalty, fine, bloodmoney”), which transliterated into the Latin poena (“penalty”) and punio (“to correct, chastise”), and later became the Old French verb punir or punissement. Eventually, it was adapted in late Middle English how it is spelled today:

punish —-> punishment

The colloquial meaning “to inflict heavy damage or loss” is first recorded 1801, originally in boxing.

poine (“fine, bloodmoney”)

poena (“penalty, punishment”)

punio (“correct, chastise, take vengeance, inflict pain”)



pun·ish·ment [puhn-ish-muhnt] noun

  1. the act of punishing
  2. the fact of being punished, as for an offense or fault
  3. a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.
  4. severe handling or treatment
  5. Psychology: reduction of a behavior through the application of an adverse stimulus (“positive punishment”) or the removal of a pleasant stimulus (“negative punishment”)
Synonyms — abuse, discipline, forfeiture, retribution, sanction, suffering, trial
Antonyms — award, happiness, reward


For those not familiar with how these words are related in the field of psychology, both punishment and reinforcement are types of operant conditioning (as opposed to Pavlov’s classical conditioning of reflexive behaviors).

Operant conditioning (see B.F. Skinner and his famous puzzle boxes) describes learning, or modification of voluntary behavior, that occurs due to the anticipated or previously-experienced consequences of an action. In this perspective, punishment can be either positive or negative, and reinforcement can be positive or negative.

Often, my difficulty (like many other psychology students) was to distinguish between negative reinforcement and punishment in real-life scenarios. In this case, we are specifically interested in the different meanings of the words punishment… vs. reinforcement, and how this relates to their meanings in psychology. So far, we know that:

punishment = decreases frequency of a particular behavior (“penalty, correction, debt”)

Positive punishment = adding an adverse stimuli following the behavior

example: spanking or shaming a child

Negative punishmentremoving an adverse stimuli following the behavior

example: taking away privilege or something desirable

Next week, we’ll go a little deeper into the other form of operant conditioning to see the contrast, and discuss the outcomes of the different behavior modification strategies:

reinforcement = increases the frequency of a particular behavior (“to strengthen again”)

If you just can’t stand the wait, take a look at this TED-Ed video that explains what learning means to psychologists and great explanations of classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and the difference between punishments and reinforcements…


Wikipedia: Punishment (psychology), Operant conditioning, Operant conditioning chambers

Dictionary.com: punish, punishment

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