Surprisingly, no. Not necessarily.
You could actually get my answer to this question by reading this other post: Only If The Behavior Decreases! But of course I’m writing some more anyway.
This issue was a big stumbling block for me when I first started studying operant learning. If negative reinforcement requires for an aversive to be removed, then it had to get there in the first place, right? That’s only logical. So whenever it appeared, there must have been punishment, right? I used to argue about this in my head all the time. But the answer is no, it doesn’t follow that there necessarily was punishment. There absolutely could have been, but it is not logically necessary after all. Here’s why.
Positive punishment: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.
Look at the second half of the definition. I’ve harped on this before, largely because I need a lot of reminding myself. The definition of punishment (and reinforcement also) is recursive. We can only know if punishment has occurred by traveling to the future. If the behavior didn’t decrease, there was no punishment.
Aversives, Negative Reinforcement, and Positive Punishment
Employing an aversive and using negative reinforcement do not mean one is also positively punishing a behavior. I have this from the words of Susan Friedman, PhD, in one of her lectures in her Living and Learning with Animals Professional Course. For punishment to have occurred, a behavior must decrease in frequency. That’s the definition. And if one is in a negative reinforcement scenario, the behavior the animal is performing at the onset of the aversive could very well be randomized, because that is not the focus of the training. The animal may not always be doing the same thing when the aversive (e.g. shock, pinch, pressure, nagging, or appearance of scary monster) starts.
If I decided to teach my sensitive dog Zani to back up by consistently walking into her whenever we were both in a certain hallway (note: I don’t teach backing up that way), her behavior of coming into that hallway when I was there would definitely decrease. Coming into the hallway with me would have been positively punished.
But let’s say in another training scenario I play a mildly aversive noise whenever I want Zani to come get on her mat in the kitchen, and the noise stays on until she gets there. The mat is a “safe place” and getting on it turns off the noise. (Again, I would not do this.) Zani could be anywhere in the house when the noise starts. Her behavior at the onset is randomized, so nothing gets punished. But if I started doing it consistently when she was sitting in a particular chair, she would likely stop getting in that chair.
Since we humans fall into patterns so easily, it is very easy for positive punishment to start happening when we regularly use an aversive. But the point is that it does not have to happen.
Let’s face it, people use noxious stimuli all the time without behavior decreasing. That’s one of the many problems with trying to use positive punishment: unless the noxious stimulus is strong enough (and well timed enough, and several other criteria), the original behavior may maintain its strength.
So does this mean that negative reinforcement is OK? No. An aversive is an aversive. Just because there is no positive punishment going on doesn’t mean that the training is humane.
If you wanted to reword the question in the title, you could say, “But if you use negative reinforcement aren’t you also using an aversive, just like in positive punishment?” As long as it is recognized that the aversive is used in a different way, the answer is yes.
But the funny thing is, I’ve heard the relationship between the two processes that use aversives used to make two opposite claims, neither of them true in my opinion.
First is the claim implicit in the title. It usually goes like this:
If you use negative reinforcement, therefore you are using positive punishment, so neeter neeter neeter.
I have dealt with that one above.
The second claim goes like this:
Yes, you can have negative reinforcement without positive punishment. And that’s the GOOD kind of negative reinforcement. As long as there is not positive punishment going on, negative reinforcement can actually be kind of nice.
Excuse me? The existence or non-existence of concomitant positive punishment is irrelevant to how aversive a stimulus is. It is possible to train with a shock collar using a negative reinforcement protocol, for instance. Again, as long as the point at which the shock is turned on is fairly random with regard to the dog’s behavior, you may not necessarily see a decrease in a behavior as a result of the commencement of the shock.
Negative reinforcement is only one notch up from positive punishment on the Humane Hierarchy, and for good reason. It always involves an aversive, and employs escape and avoidance, pure and simple. So don’t anybody dare use my argument above showing that there is not necessarily positive punishment in order to say that negative reinforcement is OK.
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