When a person thinks about punishment, they often think about one person doing something “bad” or “aversive” to another person as a negative consequence for what they did. That is not how punishment is defined in applied behavior analysis (ABA). Punishment is when a behavior results in a consequence that makes it less likely to occur again. 

For example, if you fall asleep on the beach without any suntan lotion and get a bad sunburn, you would be less likely to do it again.  It may not be intuitive by society’s standards that this is punishment. An example of punishment using a cultural definition would be a teenager being grounded from the movies for drinking a beer. However, this would only be punishment if it actually prevented the teenager from drinking beer in the future.

When a behavior is punished, the behavior is always decreased. In ABA terms, punishment occurs when a consequence reduces the occurrences of a behavior.  Whether a consequence is perceived as “good” or “bad” has nothing to do with punishment in ABA. Something is punishment ONLY if it decreases behavior. 

There are two different types of punishment: positive punishment and negative punishment. 

Positive Punishment 

Positive punishment is when the addition of a stimulus immediately following a behavior decreases the likelihood that the behavior will occur again. 

Some examples are a sunburn, a verbal reprimand or a speeding ticket.

These are only examples of punishment if they decrease future instances of behavior. Something is NOT a punishment  if they do not decrease the behaviors that preceded them even if they are aversive. For example, a speeding ticket is not a punishment if it does not prevent a person from speeding in the future.  

Negative Punishment 

Negative punishment is when a behavior is decreased due to the removal of a desired reinforcer that a person already had access to. 

Some examples are a child receiving a timeout in the middle of a game that he or she was enjoying due to pushing a friend, losing your phone after a night of drinking or a waiter throwing away your dinner when you got up to go to the bathroom at a restaurant. Just like with positive punishment, these are only examples of punishment if they actually decrease a behavior. 

This article is useful for registered behavior technicians (RBT) or students who are studying to become board certified behavior analysts (BCBAs). Understanding (Applied Behavior Analysis) ABA terms is critical for both being an effective ABA therapist and passing your BCBA exam.

In an effort to help you study for your BCBA exam more effectively, this post is written in a “study note” form rather than as a long form blog post. 

They are my personal study notes I am sharing with you as a gift. I am spending my time studying so they are not edited. I am grateful for your understanding in overlooking the grammar! Happy Studying! 


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis (3rd Edition). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson Education.

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