Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?

Trick question, because we don’t have enough information yet to answer. We need the whole scenario: antecedents (including those that are farther back in time), behavior, and more detail about the consequence.

Here’s a true story.

When I was about 20, I was driving in my hometown. I was home from college and driving down my own street. I think I was going about 45. I think the speed limit was 35. I don’t remember why I was speeding. I didn’t commonly drive fast. But that day I did.

I heard a siren and caught my breath. Looked in the rearview mirror. There was a police car behind me, lights flashing and siren blaring. It took a moment to realize that I was the target. My heart started beating fast and I got shaky. It took a while before there was a good place to pull off the road. I started to panic, fearing the officer would think I was trying to flee. But I got off the road as soon as I could. I parked, still shaky, and rolled down my window. I don’t remember what the male officer said, but I had been speeding and he was giving me a ticket.

I am not crier, but I started to cry. I was scared and humiliated. Then further humiliated because I was crying. Then worried that he thought I was crying strategically, to get out of the ticket. I wasn’t. I was just that upset.

But I was lucky. I was a young white, privileged female, moderately attractive if a little nerdish. I was in very little danger, compared to any person of color. Being stopped by a police officer can be lethal for some people. Usually not for my demographic, and frankly, it wasn’t that type of fear. I wasn’t afraid for my life or personal safety. But a run-in with an authority figure where I was in the wrong still scared the holy bejeezus out of me.

I think the ticket was $50, a largish amount for those times and a stretch for my college student budget. I received the written ticket, an attached envelope, and instructions to pay before a deadline several weeks away. I paid it.

White window envelope from City Hall. Is receiving this in the mail punishment?

Did I Stop Speeding?

As I mentioned, I generally observed the speed limit before this happened. But yes, there was a behavior change. I was extra careful on that street and in my hometown in general for several years afterward. I paid extra close attention to the posted speed limits. So although the behavior didn’t generalize as much as the authorities might have desired, I was indeed punished for speeding. My behavior of speeding reduced. I didn’t want to get caught and pulled over again.

What Kind of Punishment Was It?

For me, it was positive punishment.

Positive punishment: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

What was added? A scary, humiliating stop by a police officer. This was definitely an aversive experience for me.

But Wait, That’s Not What the Learning Theory Books Say!

Speeding tickets and other types of fines are often presented as examples of the operant conditioning process of negative punishment.

Negative punishment: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

What’s removed? Money! Your money is taken away contingent on an incident of speeding. This penalty is performed with the apparent intent of reducing speeding behavior. Negative punishment is also called a response cost.

So a ticket with a fine may be an example of negative punishment for some people, but that’s not what made me reduce my speeding.

If you aren’t bothered by authority figures or if you are on friendly terms with the officer who stopped you, the interaction itself may not be aversive. But the amount of the ticket could be hard on your budget, even catastrophic. It could prompt you to change your behavior. For me, the money was painful, but the interaction had an even larger effect on my behavior.

What If There Is No Behavior Change?

Speedometer with needle just about 50 mph

OK, in the negative punishment scenario, how likely is the behavior to change? How effective is the fine? Obviously, the results will vary from person to person, but there is a problem with the timing. Consequences are most effective when they follow a behavior immediately. But speeding ticket fines don’t usually do that. You are usually handed a ticket with an address or attached envelope. There is some legal code on there to reference what law you are accused of breaking. Sometimes it’s really confusing. You usually have a couple of weeks to get the money to the local government or dispute the ticket and get a court date.

We can certainly understand the connection between speeding and paying the money but it doesn’t pack a big punch as a consequence because of that time lag. The time between behavior and consequence is one of the crucial factors determining whether a consequence is effective. In almost all cases, a shorter time span is much more effective.

But sometimes the fine can be immediate. Once I was traveling driving across the country with a friend who got stopped on the highway in a speed trap. It was in Kentucky or Virginia. The officer pulled over and corralled two cars at once (both with out of state license plates) and led us both to the station. It soon became clear that we would have to pay a large fine then and there to be able to go on our way. The alternative was to come back to the same town at some date in the future. Who can do that when they are driving through? In that experience, the loss of the money was immediate. But hopefully, that is unusual. (It was also a scary experience.)

I wonder how often behavior changes because of the fine with the envelope in the mail scenario.

One answer to the question in the title is “Neither.”

The Effects of Consequences Vary

I’ve related my personal speeding ticket story above. Someone else’s might be very different. The interaction might not bother them. Or there might not be any human interaction at all if they were “caught” by a programmed camera and got a ticket in the mail. On the other hand, a person without white privilege would be justifiably much more frightened than I was by being stopped.

For some people, the loss of the money could indeed be a driving force for behavior change. But I think overall, the speeding ticket example is a poor example for the learning theory books because 1) it skips the experience of receiving the ticket, which can be very aversive; 2) there is usually a time lag between the behavior and the response cost of paying the fine; and 3) being stopped by a police officer is a politically charged issue right now.

Further Reading and Discussion

After writing this post, I discovered a very nice piece that analyzes several of the behaviors and consequences related to receiving a traffic ticket. If I had seen that article, I might not have written mine! The author concludes that the purpose of traffic tickets is not to change behavior.  Take a look. It gave me some new realizations on the topic.

Are speeding tickets punishing?—ABC Behavior Training

I’d love to hear others’ experiences. Anybody out there make a long-lasting behavior change because of getting a fine? Oh, and drive safely!

Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson 


19 thoughts on “Speeding Tickets: Negative or Positive Punishment?

  1. “Consequences are most effective when they follow a behavior immediately.”
    “The time between behavior and consequence is one of the crucial factors determining whether a consequence is effective.”

    I disagree. It is true if consequences are strongly associated with the behavior, which in some cases is dependent on time, but less so on others. After several times my dog realized the eye drops make his eye feel better hours later, and as soon as I show him the bottle he’ll now lay down and wait. With anxious dogs one could very easily set up scenarios where immediate consequences have much less effect or are ignored, as opposed to delayed ones.

    As you brought out with this article, many scenarios may potentially involve several types of operant conditioning. However, each one of them has an associated change of behavior as part of its definition, therefore you simply cannot confirm any of them without the associated change in behavior probability. Because different people may respond differently, the “analysis” may vary.

    That article you referenced quickly reminded me of Ian Dunbar’s saying: “Give them a scapel and they’ll dissect a kiss”. One of the indicators of this is the author making various absolute judgements, based on only their fabricated scenario.

    At several points in that referenced article they say things like:
    “-immediate punishment due to waiting-”
    Except that “punishment” and “operant punishment” are not always the same thing, yet they are using them as such.

    So, the real answer might be PP 62% of the time, then NP 33%, and signifcant components of both 3% of the time. But, presenting this as an “A” or “B” where an absolute rule can be determined by analysis will often have a high error rate. Yes, this is certainly a pet peeve of mine, as I see so many dog owners and trainers doing this, then wondering why all their “science” doesn’t work, when they forgot to include it.

    Instead, the real test of knowledge and ability with behavioral analysis is in behavior prediction. Knowing there’s always an error component & learning how to increase your accuracy in prediction with additional tests and scenarios.

    Finally, I’ll answer your last question. I once got two speeding tickets for doing something like 35 in a 30 zone which was on a small street only a few blocks from my house. I didn’t care about the fine but being stopped on the way home from work was very annoying, and I learned to change my behavior on that particular street for the next decade. In another case it was just a cop having a bad day & I got multiple tickets for something quite legal, so there was no behavior to change. Perhaps we call that an Operant Zero?

    1. Hey Gerry,
      You always get me when I oversimplify. When dealing with humans in particular, yes, consequences can be less immediate and still effective. We’ve got rule-based behavior and other cognitive complications to throw in. But the effects of timely consequences are so well-documented across species that they can’t be discounted either. I’m surprised and impressed about your eyedrops story. They only association I know of that can be made hours later is taste aversion, which happens in humans and other animals after eating something that makes them sick.

      I liked the scalpel article! Made me think of some interesting things. I’ll go back and check out the terminology more. But for instance, I hadn’t thought of the social consequences of getting a ticket. Tell the story, get some positive or negative reinforcement for that….

      Excellent story about getting tickets for something that wasn’t wrong. Operant Zero indeed….

  2. This is great, Eileen! I had the exact same experience as a young driver (!!) —I was actually driving within the speed limit, but it was pouring rain, so I was ticked got driving “too fast for conditions”—and have the same reaction every time I come across this example. And, I do not speed. That said, just a couple of years ago I was keeping up with the flow of traffic on an interstate, and inadvertently was speeding. I was the last car in a pack of cars, and I was the one who got pulled over. I actually started laughing when the very nice young state trooper told me that I was speeding and issued me a warning, but not a ticket. I explained that I was laughing because my friends were never going to believe that I, of all people, got a speeding ticket on my way to their farm. Great blog post!

    1. Great story! I would not have been laughing, though. That is really to your credit that you took it well. I would have been grinding my teeth in an ego response! I had another “young driver” story on Facebook as well. I guess it has happened to a handful of us. I couldn’t BELIEVE I was crying. It was mortifying. Thanks for the comment and the good story!

  3. Speeding fines are a ‘penalty’ (or in common English “Punishment”). Whether they work to reduce the behaviour is debatable. But they certainly do for me.

  4. 18 years old and still haven’t got my licence and still learning to drive because driving scared the heck out of me when I first tried it and I just didn’t want to do it. So, I cannot imagine speeding, because I have a hard time going the speed limit. 😁 I’ll get there one day I guess, haha! But for now it still scares me, only not as much and I’m able to deal with it, so it won’t be long before I am able to take the test.

  5. nice example. I have made the experience that the effect of a speeding ticket will diminish over time when there is no further experience of being caught speeding again. I might drive within the speed limit along the stretches where I was caught (in Germany we mostly have automated speeding traps now) – making this a location based learning.

    Not sure if you have these in the US but here more and more visual aids are placed: a sensor circuit across the road and a display panel that will show the speed you are driving. Often the display has additional features, like displaying higher speeds in red (conditioned warning) and flashing and correct speed in green (conditioned, again). Sometimes together with a sad and happy smiley face – which I find the most effective, so far.

    I discussed such a display panel just yesterday while driving with my husband: is the red, sad smiley negative reinforcement or positive punishment? It did make us adjust our speed until the green, happy smiley face appeared 🙂

    And the emotional response wasn’t as unsettling as being caught in a speed trap….. Most likely I will pay more attention to how fast I’m driving through that village in the future to see the green, happy smiley with a better emotional response than when looking for the speed trap and checking my speed to avoid getting a ticket.

    1. We have those display panels here, but they are the more basic version. Another effective thing about them, though, is getting the visual feedback when you adjust your speed. Instant reinforcement! Could be positive (whee, I controlled that gizmo!) or negative (whew, I’m not going to get a ticket).

      I’m voting for the red sad face to negatively reinforce you for changing your speed, since it had some duration and you made it go away. But that is one of those dual contingency situations where the same aversive can be part of two learning processes. If you speed less, or at least less in that area, it could have had a punishing effect. But I’m voting mostly R- in the immediate scenario. Nice puzzle!

      Your first comment about the effect of the speeding ticket diminishing over time—yes! That’s the typical pattern for a moderately punishing stimulus.

      Thanks for the interesting points!

  6. I wonder if the quadrants of operant conditioning are too simplistic. Does the quadrant model cause us to force fit behavior symmetrically into a quadrant? As a tool is the quadrant model meant to be descriptive or prescriptive?

    Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2005). Positive and negative reinforcement: Should the distinction be
    preserved? The Behavior Analyst / MABA, 28(2), 85–98.
    Baron, A., & Galizio, M. (2006). The distinction between positive and negative reinforcement: Use
    with care. The Behavior Analyst, 29(1), 141.
    Marr, M. J. (2006). Through the Looking Glass: Symmetry in Behavioral Principles? The Behavior
    Analyst, 29(1), 125.
    Michael, J. (1975). Positive and Negative Reinforcement, a Distinction That Is No Longer Necessary; Or a Better Way to Talk about Bad Things. Behaviorism, 3(1), 33–44.

    1. The processes of operant conditioning (“quadrants” is a term invented by dog or possibly horse trainers and it not used by behavior analysts, especially since there are more than four operant learning processes!) are descriptive. That’s why when doing analysis we always start with a behavior. A behavior is decreasing, increasing, or maintaining. We can use these descriptive terms to analyze the consequences that may be driving it. Because the consequences may be at times hard to identify doesn’t mean there is anything simplistic or vague (I know you didn’t say that, but it’s a common criticism) of the learning processes.

      I have studied all the articles in your list and have an article in the works about them. Interestingly, the earliest one, by Jack Michael, is often terribly misinterpreted. The second part of the title (which I’m glad you included) acknowledges that he is not trying to combine positive and negative reinforcement, as many claim. His critique is with the terminology. He feels it is vitally important to maintain some way of indicating when there is an aversive in the picture.

      The other articles in the list are not entirely about terminology but still focus on it.

      The thing is, these articles are still but a footnote in current learning theory textbooks. They are a minority view. They make some interesting points. But the current nomenclature is still being used, for better or worse.

      For me, exploring what learning processes are at play is fun and fascinating. They get more complex and interesting the more I delve in.

      Actually, I think we are in agreement. My article supports your implication that we should not take the learning processes as prescriptive. Big generalizations, say, about speeding tickets, may not be true for individuals. We have to get to real motivators to find out. Then we describe the processes at work.

      Thanks for the comment!

  7. I am actually surprised to learn here that anyone thinks a speeding ticket could be anything other than positive punishment (unless, of course, we’re talking about the small portion of drivers who don’t give a damn about getting a ticket, and whose speeding habit wouldn’t change). Behavior is speeding, punishment added is the experience of getting a ticket (and yes, it’s terrifying, especially now, when this middle-aged white woman feels herself in danger of telling a cop what she thinks of racial bias in the police forces, and suffering the consequences), and the behavior of speeding tends to decrease. This is working on me as intended, because I do not want to interact with a cop at all, if possible, and I’m driving more carefully as a result. Who’s teaching that this is an example of negative punishment?

    1. The people who are focusing on the fine/penalty part of the ticket are the ones talking about negative punishment. Although your comment caused me to look it up, and quite a few books/websites cite it as positive punishment. To summarize: the experience of getting the ticket is likely going to be positive punishment. Having to pay a fine/penalty could be negative punishment. That’s the part that kept sticking in my mind–to look at that at the exclusion of the experience seemed a bit short-sighted.

      Here’s one example (even though they also say it’s negative reinforcement–whoops!): http://www.intropsych.com/ch05_conditioning/response_cost.html

      Also in one of Paul Chance’s books (Learning and Behavior, Active Edition), he cites speeding tickets that involve fines as negative punishment on page 208.

      And from Working with Aggressive Youth: A Sourcebook for Child Care Providers, we get: “Receiving a speeding ticket for driving too fast would be an example of negative punishment or response cost.” (page 24)

      But I’m really glad you wrote, because after I looked around a bit, I did see quite a few citing it as positive punishment. And some books use the example of having one’s license suspended as negative punishment. Although again, I bet that experience has quite a few P+ possibilities in it.

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