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Terminology and behavior reduction: the case against "punishment."

ABSTRACT: Controversy continues to rage over the application of punishment of aversive procedures in treatment and habilitation. A lack of clear definition of terms may be contributing to confusion in the debate. Tracing the history of the term punishment shows that its retention as a description of a behavioral process is due primarily to happenstance. The unfortunate choice of a word long associated with cruel and inhumane treatment has led to considerable confounding of the technical and traditional usages in public debate. The alternative term, aversive, is of more recent origin, yet it also suffers from inconsistent usage and some degree of negative association. Important questions concerning the appropriateness of behavior reduction procedures are made more difficult to answer when those procedures are designated by names laden with surplus meaning. Attempts by professional associations to address the behavior reduction dilemma offer opportunities for implementing more precise, less pejorative terms. Toward that end a conceptual framework is presented that could guide the choice If an alternative terminology for behavior reduction.

The application of punishment in human service programs continues to be controversial. Concern over the application (or misapplication) of unpleasant or noxious stimuli has led to the suggestion that punishment and aversive procedures should be abandoned in favor of less aversive alternatives (Donnellan, Negri-Shoultz, Fassbendes, & LaVigna, 1988; Evans & Meyer, 1985; Guess, 1988). At least one major professional organization has renounced the use of "intrusive procedures" (The Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps, 1981). Withholding treatment on the basis of presumed aversiveness raises ethical issues in its own right, however, because severe behavior disorders, left untreated, may cause pain or harm to the untreated individual, or to others in that individual's environment (Schopp, 1984). This concern is especially salient when the treatment that is withheld has been shown to be more effective in remediating the disorder than nonaversive alternatives (Baer, 1970; Neel, 1978; Van Houten, 1983). This conflict between two valid, yet conflicting, ethical claims makes the topic one that defies easy resolution.

Ethical concerns may be only part of the problem. In the case of punishment or aversive stimulation, it could be argued that at least some of the controversy and confusion has been generated by the terms themselves. The prevailing terminology used to designate behavior reductive procedures may be profoundly tainted by associations with colloquial usage and inhumane practice. Arguments for and against the use of punishment suggest that both the effectiveness and the noxiousness of behavior reductive procedures are crucial in deciding whether and when to use those procedures (Harris & Ersner-Hershfield, 1978; Martin, 1975). Yet it could be argued that current terminology hinders research in either domain by confounding what are essentially two conceptually distinct issues.

The present review does not argue the appropriateness or inappropriateness of behavior reduction procedures. Strong cases have been made, both for the effectiveness of, and the ethical problems associated with, punishment. Rather, it is argued that the most widely used terms in this area, punishment and aversive, are rooted in misconception and continue to promote misunderstanding and confusion. By confounding the domains of effectiveness and ethics, the current terms may in fact hinder systematic research and may cloud public discussion concerning the appropriate use of behavior reductive procedures.


The definition of punishment most widely adhered to in the current literature was proposed by Azrin and Holz (1966). They defined punishment as follows:
 Our minimal definition will be a consequence
 of behavior that reduces the future probability
 of that behavior. Stated more fully, punishment
 is a reduction of the future probability of a
 specific response as a result of the immediate
 delivery of a stimulus for that response. (p. 381)

The Azrin and Holz definition emphasized the functional relationship between a contingent consequence and the subsequent decrement in behavior. As such it has several important implications that distinguish it from earlier procedural definitions of punishment (i.e., Skinner, 1953; Solomon, 1964), particularly its emphases on rate and the contingency between stimulus and response, and its focus on the functional, rather than procedural aspects of behavior (Azrin & Holz, 1966).

Historical Influences on the Term Punishment

The development of precise terminology, suitable for research purposes and free of excess meaning, has been seen as important in increasing the stimulus control of terminology over scientific practice (Harzem & Miles, 1978; Hineline, 1980; Skinner, 1938, 1957). Early behavioral psychologists thus replaced the term punishment with a term with less general and more specific meaning. Watson (1928), for instance, considered negative consequences, appropriately applied, to be negative conditioning, not punishment:
 The word punishment should not appear in our
 dictionaries except as an obsolete word, and I
 believe this should be just as true in the field of
 criminology as in that of childrearing.... Such
 things as beatings and expiation of offenses, so
 common now in our schools and homes ... are
 relics of the Dark Ages. (p. 63)

In delineating the Law of Effect, Thorndike (1911) referred to "satisfying" and "annoying" consequences. Similarly, Skinner (1938) made no mention of the colloquial terms reward and punishment. Instead, he translated them into "two kinds of reinforcing stimuli-positive and negative" (p. 66).

The widely accepted definition of punishment proposed by Azrin and Holz (1966) represents a return to the negative law of effect first proposed by Thorndike (1913):
 The Law of Effect is: When a modifiable
 connection between a situation and a response
 is made and is accompanied by or followed by
 a satisfying state of affairs, that connection's
 strength is increased; when made and
 accompanied or followed by an annoying state
 of affairs, its strength is decreased. (p. 4)

Yet although the negative law of effect has clearly been empirically validated (Mackintosh, 1974), doubts expressed about the generality of that law may have prevented widespread acceptance of the functional definition until relatively recently (Dunham, 1971).

Historical reviews by Michael (1975) and Yulevich and Axelrod (1983) suggest that early researchers had doubts about the efficacy of negative consequences. Both laboratory (Estes, 1944; Skinner, 1938) and field (Thorndike, 1932) research seemed to provide evidence that the effects of negative consequences were weaker and more transitory than the effects of positive reinforcement. Such considerations may have set the stage for redefining "negative reinforcement" as the strengthening of behavior through the withdrawal of an aversive stimulus (Keller & Schoenfield, 1950; Skinner, 1953). Punishment was then defined as the simple presentation of an aversive stimulus, or the removal of a positive reinforcer.

Available data have consistently contradicted assertions that punishment is ineffective (Postman, 1947; Solomon, 1964; Warden & Aylesworth, 1927). The most compelling evidence concerning the effectiveness of punishment came from a number of investigations (Appel, 1963; Azrin, 1956, 1960; Azrin & Holz, 1961; Hake & Azrin, 1965; Holz & Azrin, 1961; Karsh, 1963; Walters & Rogers, 1963) demonstrating that punishment can have powerful long-term effects, dependent on a number of factors, such as intensity. Stimuli used in earlier experiments, such as the slap of a bar in laboratory settings (Skinner, 1938), or the word "wrong" in educational settings (Thorndike, 1932), may simply have been too mild to have had more than a temporary effect on behavior (Azrin & Holz, 1966; Postman, 1947). Contingent negative consequences, in fact, have been shown to be more effective in reducing behavior than a variety of other procedures (Church, 1963; Holz, Azrin, & Ayllon, 1963).

Although Azrin and Holz (1966) used such findings to reinstate the negative law of effect, they retained the terminology of those who doubted that law. There was no attempt to return to the earlier terminology placing positive and negative reinforcement in opposition to each other. The term punishment was simply redefined as a reduction in the probability of behavior through the application of contingent consequences. Although Azrin and Holz did not specifically address negative reinforcement, both the term and concept of negative reinforcement appear to have been retained as they were redefined. A survey of commonly used textbooks in psychology and behavior analysis (Alberto & Troutment, 1986; Baron, 1989; Domjan & Burkhard, 1986; Gleitman, 1986; Roediger, Rushton, Capaldi, & Paris, 1987; Spear, Penrod, & Baker, 1988) suggests that the current definition of negative reinforcement remains essentially unchanged from the Keller and Schoenfield (1950) definition.

The Problem with "Punishment"

Thus, widely accepted terminology for two important behavioral processes-punishment and negative reinforcement-appears to be grounded in questionable assumptions made about those processes by early investigators. At the very least, the resulting terms have led to difficulties in training in operant theory and methods. As Michael (1 975) noted, the discrimination between "negative reinforcement" and "punishment" is perhaps the most difficult and least well grasped among students who are learning behavioral principles. The common usage, placing reward and punishment in opposition to each other, lends itself to an analogous interpretation of positive and negative reinforcement: If reward has been translated into reinforcement, one would expect negative reinforcement and punishment to be likewise equated. To alleviate the confusion, Michael suggested that the distinction between positive and negative reinforcement be dropped. Thus, "the solution to our terminological problem is to refer to the good things as reinforcers and reinforcement, and the bad things as punishers and punishment" (p. 44).

Confounds with Traditional Usage. Yet the more difficult problem may be raised by the continued used of the term punishment, and indeed, by its perceived status as a "bad thing." Walters and Grusec (1977) suggested that our understanding of punishment may be "tainted by association with brutality, child battering, and control achieved by sheer force" (p. 2). Certainly the connotations of retribution inherent in the word seem directly at odds with the intended technical definition. Yulevich and Axelrod (1983) present a list of synonyms for "punishment" that range from "condemnation," "penalization," and "persecution," to "beating" ."caning," "flogging," "thrash," and "torture" (p. 360).

This confusion between the technical and traditional uses of the term punishment may be representative of a more general problem inherent in the expropriation of the vernacular for technical or scientific purposes. Seeking more precise stimulus control over scientific practice and discourse, a scientific community may engage in "conceptual revision" (Harzem & Miles, 1978), either inventing new terms (i.e., operant) or redefining old terms (i.e., punishment, extinction). Dietz and Arrington (1983), draw upon the work of Wittgenstein (1953) to identify two difficulties inherent in borrowing from the vernacular for technical usage. First, being more restrictive in its connotations, the revised term does not necessarily cover the same conceptual territory as the original term. Thus, defining "walking" as "movement of the legs" for research purposes may so circumscribe the area of study as to make it irrelevant to the wider culture still interested in the process of walking. Second, redefinition in no way guarantees that even those in the technical community will abide by the new usage. Special educators themselves, as members of the wider culture, are likely to slip into more traditional uses of terminology, both through their own previous experience as members of that culture, and through their contact with lay audiences.

Further, redefinition within a technical community does not change the use of the original term in the culture that donated the word. Component analysis of the general usage of the term punishment (Greenawalt, 1983) suggests that it typically describes a process wherein "persons who possess authority impose designedly unpleasant consequences upon, and express their condemnation of, other persons who are capable of choice and who have breached established standards of behavior" (pp. 343-344). The dictionary defines the verb punish more simply, as "to cause to undergo pain, loss, or suffering for a crime or wrongdoing" (Webster's New World, 1982, p.1152). Legal definitions are also reflective of this broader cultural meaning. One of the more widely cited legal definitions (Hart, 1968) suggested that punishment must "involve pain or other consequences normally considered as unpleasant" (p. 4). Grupp (1984) has noted that the three justifications for punishment in the justice system are retribution, deterrence, and remediation. Clearly, common and legal conceptualizations of punishment describe a process considerably more inclusive than simply a consequence that reduces the future probability of responding.

Analysis of the contingencies governing verbal behavior (Skinner, 1957) provides a useful perspective from which to view this type of conceptual conflict. When two different meanings are assigned to the same word, the community that can provide the most powerful, immediate, and ubiquitous consequences will ultimately determine accepted usage. If special educators are among peers in journals or conferences, local contingencies may prevail over general usage, yielding a more or less agreed-on definition of punishment. Outside of such situations, however, the broader cultural contingencies likely will prevail when technical and traditional usage come in conflict. Wexler (1982) noted that, in terms of the legal issues involved, there is a ... blur' between punishment for the sake of punishment and punishment for the sake of therapy" (p. 293).

Effects on Practice. This problem of conflicting sources of stimulus control becomes especially salient when findings based on the technical definition of punishment are applied to educational or psychological practice. Guidelines presented for the responsible and ethical use of punishment procedures (Gast & Nelson, 1977; Macmillan, Forness, & Trumball, 1973; May et al., 1975; Nolley et al., 1980; Repp & Dietz, 1978) have stressed qualities of delivery (i.e., brevity, lack of emotionality, provision of a cognitive rationale, careful implementation, documentation, and review) that are intended to shape practice away from the retributive aspects of punishment. Yet the procedures are subsumed under a word that "implies the infliction of some penalty on a wrongdoer and generally connotes retribution rather than correction (to punish a murderer by hanging him)" (Webster's New World, 1982, p. 1152).

By introducing methodologies called punishment, psychologists and educators are placed in the awkward position of using a term that serves as a discriminative stimulus for the very practices they are trying to avoid or reform. It is not surprising that trainers of practitioners are often unsuccessful in shaping nonpunitive practice, when the word they use to describe behavior reduction is derived from the same Latin root (poena: fine, penalty) as punitive (Oxford English Dictionary, 1982, p. 1604). To expect that a word with such a colorful history can be semantically transformed in the wider culture simply because it has been provided a new technical meaning is at best unrealistic. It is more likely that the purely decelerative connotations of punishment intended by the scientific community will become confounded with traditional retributive functions as practice becomes more removed from the control exercised by the academic community. Thus, the "misapplication" of punishment may be little more than a return, in the absence of strict stimulus control, to the traditional definition of punishment with its culturally accepted connotation of retribution.

Effects on Research. It might be argued that this situation could be remedied by more carefully researched procedures. Ironically, however, the term punishment appears to have had a deleterious impact on research (Van Houten, 1983). There appears to be little agreement in the research literature concerning an applied definition of punishment: While some suggest that punishment is either the presentation of a negative consequence or the removal of a positive one (Rutherford & Neel, 1978), other investigators (Forehand & Baumeister, 1976; Stainback, Stainback, & Dedrick, 1979) restrict the use of the term to the delivery of an aversive consequence such as electric shock. Lack of consensus concerning what actually constitutes punishment may be one reason that the applied literature in the area has been so strongly and consistently criticized (Brantner & Doherty, 1983; Forehand & MacDonough, 1975; Johnston, 1972; Polsgrove & Reith, 1983; Van Houten, 1983; Yulevich & Axelrod, 1983).

Even in those cases where demonstrably effective and relatively noninstrusive procedures have been developed, the continued negative connotations of the termpunishment may present an obstacle to their widespread acceptance:
 Behaviorism is not the antithesis of humanism.
 .. But the fact that behavior analysts use
 techniques of punishment, and do so more
 effectively than has been done hitherto, may be
 one reason why behaviorism is still not as
 widely supported as it might be.... No person
 of good will is interested in more efficient ways
 of making people suffer. Yulevich & Axelrod,

Several investigators have found a lower level of treatment acceptability for punishment and aversive procedures (Kazdin, 1981; Norton, Austen, Allen, & Hilton, 1983; Witt & Martens, 1983; Wood & Hill, 1983). Acceptability is an important criterion for ascertaining the social validity of the procedures (Wolf, 1978); yet terminological confounds threaten the integrity of social validity research as well. As long as behavior reductive procedures are designated by terminology traditionally associated with inhumane practice, there is no way of determining to what extent negative reactions are due to the procedures themselves, or to the terminology used to describe them. Woolfolk, Woolfolk, and Wilson (1977) demonstrated that type of terminology applied to a given procedure (e.g., "behavior modification" vs. "humanistic education") can differentially effect the acceptability of that procedure. One might expect that the strong negative connotations of the term punishment would cause similar reactions to procedures designated by that term.

Continuum of Definition for the Term Aversive

The present review assumes that the importance of unpleasant or deleterious effects of behavior reductive procedures does not need to be empirically demonstrated. The possibility of undesirable side effects such as escape (Boren & Colman, 1970), aggression (Carr, Newsom, & Binkoff, 1980), or significant emotional reaction (Bimbrauer, 1968) has been amply documented (Azrin & Holz, 1966; Bandura, 1969; Church, 1963; Newsom, Favell, & Rincover, 1983; Walters & Grusec, 1977). Minimizing dangerous or undesirable effects is an important goal in the application of any educational or psychological treatment. Yet the term most commonly used to represent the danger of side effects, aversive, has developed such an array of possible meanings that its use may cloud, rather than clarify, the issue.

Aversive Stimuli. The term aversive, as a descriptor of the stimuli used in punishment, appears to be of relatively recent origin. Thorndike (1911, 1932) referred to the stimuli used to reduce behavior as "annoying consequences." Other synonyms often applied were "noxious" (Estes, 1944; Skinner, 1938) or "disturbing" (Estes, 1944). As late as 1947, reviews of the literature did not include the term aversive (Postman, 1947). Skinner did use the term "aversion" in his 1938 work, but only as a description of an animal's tendency to turn away from food when satiated, not as a description of a negative or noxious stimulus.

It appears that the term was coined to refer to stimuli capable of generating escape behavior. Dinsmoor (1954) appears to have been the first to define the term aversive, using it to describe "a class of stimuli which are suitable for studies of "escape "training" or "aversion" (p. 35). Such stimuli were to be identified by their capacity to cause the animal to avoid (or "avert") those stimuli, not through subjective states that the stimuli might arouse. Similarly, Campbell and Church (1969) referred to "aversive behavior," not to the subjective reactions to noxious stimuli.

Although heuristic, this distinction may be somewhat imperfectly operationalized in actual experiments. While most animal studies define aversiveness in terms of the amount of escape or avoidance behavior the stimulus will generate, few experimental investigations have actually measured the degree of avoidance or escape behavior caused by the stimuli (Walters & Grusec, 1977). Rather, it is usually assumed that noxious stimuli will generate stronger reactions, and hence more noxious stimuli are assumed to be more aversive. One can detect a subtle evolution in the use of the term aversive, as a term once applied to behavior in response to a given stimulus becomes applied to the stimulus itself. Subjective Experience. Application of behavior reductive procedures to human, rather than animal, populations has further changed the term. In experiments with nonhuman species, the aversiveness of a stimulus can (at least (theoretically) be "defined and scaled in terms of the effect of its presentation on certain unconditioned autonomic or skeletal responses" (Church, 1963, p. 370). In research with human subjects in applied settings, ethical considerations obviously preclude observing and scaling the degree of discomfort or pain caused by a given stimulus. Instead, aversiveness is usually defined by applied researchers in terms of how subjectively unpleasant the stimulus is assumed to be:
 [Applied researchers] know what is unpleasant
 for them, and they assume it is unpleasant for
 others. If their assumptions are wrong, their
 subjects can tell them so; babies cry and children
 protest verbally. (Walters & Grusec, 1977, p. 26)

The term aversive has been used in this way to refer to a specific subclass of stimuli-such as electric shock (Carr & Lovaas, 1983) or "extraneous aversives" (Bailey, 1983)-that appear to be unpleasant, noxious, or dangerous. Rutherford and Neel (1978) distinguished between punishment procedures (i.e., response cost and timeout) and aversives (i.e., shock or noxious substances). But the term has also been used in a more generic sense to describe the noxious qualities possessed to some degree by all punishment procedures (Gast & Nelson, 1977). Authors stressing the ethics or acceptability of punishment procedures also have tended to use the term in this fashion, as a description of the subjective, noxious qualities of punishment Martin, 1975; Wood & Hill, 1983).

A Synonym of Punishment. Finally, there is a tendency to regard the terms punishment and aversive as interchangeable, and perhaps coterminous. In reconceptualizing punishment, Azrin and Holz appear to have retained the escape-and-avoidance connotations of the term, making no attempt to redefine aversive as a synonym of punishment. Punishing stimuli appear to have "aversive properties," and punishment procedures are contrasted with "other methods of aversive stimulation" (Azrin & Holz, 1966, p. 429). Yet later reviews begin to use the terms punishment and aversive interchangeably. Macmillan, Forness, and Trumball (1973), for instance, appear to have defined aversiveness functionally:
 Whether a particular stimulus is aversive is
 determined by its effect on the behavior it
 follows. No matter how noxious or aversive a
 particular consequence may seem to the
 punisher, it is the recipient's perception which
 determines the effect of the consequences on
 behavior. (pp. 86-87) [Emphasis added]

Similarly, Michael (1975) suggested that the term aversive is unnecessary since it is merely synonymous with punishment.

Thus there appears to be a continuum of definition for the term aversive, ranging from a stimulus capable of generating escape responses, to a stimulus perceived to be noxious or unpleasant, to a term that is more or less synonymous with punishment. Indeed, use of the term aversive may prove troublesome for a purely functional account of punishment. Punishing stimuli are typically classed as being either unconditioned or conditioned. Yet the basis for this distinction is traditionally based on aversiveness: unconditioned punishers "are defined in terms of their primary aversive properties" (Azrin & Holz, 1966); whereas conditioned punishing stimuli "are punishing only during and after a history of association with other aversive stimuli" (Johnston, 1972). Thus, although punishment itself is defined solely in terms of its effects on behavior, the fundamental classes of punishing stimuli are somewhat paradoxically defined in terms of the aversive qualities of stimuli.

Finally, the term aversive appears, like punishment, to have become associated with colloquial meanings. The term resembles the word "adverse," and in fact the two words come from the same Latin root (adversus: turned against, hostile). It is not uncommon for the two words to become confused: Students learning behavioral procedures often mistakenly use the term "adversive" to describe negative consequences. The association seems to suggest that those who apply aversive (or "adversive") procedures are intending those procedures to be "unfavorable, hurtful, detrimental, injurious, calamitous, afflictive" (Oxford English Dictionary, 1982, p. 137). Given such associations, there are few who would not favor the strict regulation or abandonment of such procedures. Again, however, it is difficult to ascertain whether this would be in reaction to the procedures themselves, or simply a result of the faulty stimulus control exercised by the terminology.

Overlap of Punishment and Aversiveness

It appears that the current terms may, in and of themselves, generate considerable controversy-Yulevich and Axelrod (1983) have suggested that debate over whether to use punishment or reinforcement is inappropriate and perhaps meaningless, since the two procedures by definition have different functions: Reinforcement is meant to strengthen behavior, punishment to weaken it.

They suggest that if "it were simply a matter of increasing or decreasing behavior, controversy might not even arise" (p. 365).

It might be objected that this last argument fails to take into account ethical concerns generated by the inherent aversive qualities of punishment procedures. But the aversiveness of punishment procedures depends on how one defines "punishment" and "aversive." Lack of clarity in usage has often resulted in the two terms being equated with each other, as well as with colloquial connotations of inhumane practice. Strictly defining the terms-such that "punishment" refers only to the decelerative effects of contingent negative consequences, and "aversive" refers only to the noxious side effects of such consequences-clarifies the situation somewhat. It may then be possible, at least in theory, to identify nontrivial aversive qualities of punishment procedures.

But it is unclear to what extent the two dimensions overlap in actual practice.

Are punishment based procedures aversive? Certainly the use of electric shock (Carr & Lovaas, 1983) or extraneous aversives, such as water mists or noxious smells (Bailey, 1983), might clearly be termed aversive, in the sense of causing discomfort to the individual. For procedures commonly identified as conditioned punishers, however, the overlap may be less complete. It might be argued that response cost and timeout are aversive, by involving the loss of a possession (Walker, 1983) or the presentation of a bare room devoid of stimulation (Brantner & Doherty, 1983). Yet it would be difficult to argue that milder forms of timeout such as contingent observation (Porterfield, Herbert-Jackson, & Risley, 1976) or the removal of a ribbon (Foxx & Shapiro, 1978) constitute a source of pain or discomfort.

Though O'Leary, Kaufman, Kass, and Drabman (1970) have shown that reprimands delivered in a low tone of voice are more punishing (i.e., more effective) than loud reprimands, it is hardly likely that this is because of their increased aversiveness. Even greater difficulties are posed by demonstrations that a low probability behavior, such as running, can be used to decelerate higher probability behavior (Krivacek & Powell, 1978; Luce, Delquadri, & Hall, 1980; Premack, 1971). The fact that the same behavior might act as a reinforcer in another situation would argue against including running in a general class of aversives. Such results may indeed point up the relative nature of both behavior reduction (punishment) and subjective discomfort (aversiveness).

Similarly, it would be surprising to find that all aversive procedures constitute punishment, in the sense of effectively reducing behavior. A number of investigators (Brazier & MacDonald, 1981; Forness, 1978; Harris & Ersner-Hershfield, 1978; Nelson & Rutherford, 1988) have developed or assumed a continuum of procedures varying by degree of presumed aversiveness. If aversiveness predicted punishment, one would expect that, as procedures become increasingly aversive, they would also constitute more effective punishers. Yet there is no evidence to date that more subjectively unpleasant procedures are always more effective in reducing behavior. Research suggests that aversiveness is more likely to be dependent on situational (Hineline, 1984) or individual-difference (Maitland & Clarke, 1983) variables. In fact, a functional definition of punishment requires that aversive procedures that fail to decrease behavior not be called "punishment." Thus, almost by definition, aversive procedures are only sometimes punishing.

Conceptual Scheme for Describing Behavior Reduction Issues

The less-than-complete overlap of punishment and aversiveness suggests that there are two relevant but independent dimensions that must be taken into account in any investigation of behavior reductive procedures with human populations.

The first is the domain of technical or empirical investigation, emphasizing the capacity of contingent negative consequences to decrease the probability of behavior, and delineating the factors that mediate the effects of such consequences (Azrin & Holz, 1966; Johnston, 1972; MacMillan et al., 1973; Parke & Walters, 1967; Polsgrove & Reith, 1983; Van Houten, 1983). The second domain is ethical, emphasizing the noxious qualities, objectionable side effects, or legal issues inherent in the application of negative consequences, often with the object of presenting guidelines to minimize these side effects (Martin, 1975; May et al., 1975; Repp & Dietz, 1978; Roos, 1974; Sajwaj, 1977; Stapleton, 1975; Wood & Braaten, 1983). Whereas one or the other dimension might be stressed in a given investigation or review, both dimensions apparently are necessary. All of the major reviews of punishment in the last 25 years (Axelrod & Apsche, 1983; Azrin & Holz, 1966; Church, 1963; Gardner, 1968; Harris & Ersner-Hershfield, 1978; Johnston, 1972; MacMillan et al., 1973; Mayer, Suizer, & Cody, 1968; Parke & Walters, 1967; Polsgrove & Reith, 1983; Rutherford & Neel, 1978; Solomon, 1964; Van Houten, 1983) have discussed in some detail both the effects and side effects of behavior reductive procedures.

Analyzing Effects and Side Effects. Figure I presents a schema for conceptualizing the decisions facing those wrestling with the dilemmas posed by behavior reduction. The columns represent the two important dimensions, effects and side effects, that must be weighed in considering such procedures. The rows of the table represent the two domains, technical/empirical and ethics/policy, in which questions of effects or side effects may be addressed. Examples of specific questions are presented in each of the four cells.

As shown in the upper half of Figure 1, issues of both effects and side effects can be conceptualized as technical questions, suitable for experimental investigation. Empirical investigations of the decelerative effects of behavior reduction (Cell 1) provide data regarding the effectiveness of a given procedure, or the conditions under which deceleration is maximized. Does response cost decrease the level of inappropriate classroom behavior (Walker, Hops, & Fiegenbaum, 1976)? Is timeout more effective at longer or shorter durations (Hobbs, Forehand, & Murray, 1978)? Although less commonly reported, data can also be used to describe the parameters of the side effects of behavior reduction (Cell 2). Is counter agression generated by the therapeutic use of over correction (Carey & Bucher, 1981)? Does the use of timeout negatively effect achievement by removing a student from instructional opportunities (Skiba & Raison, in press)? The ultimate goal of such efforts might be to increase the effectiveness of a given procedure, while minimizing aspects that result in undesirable side effects.

Similarly, ethical and policy analyses can be concerned with either the effectiveness or the side effects of behavior reduction, and might ultimately be regarded as questions of social validity Wolf, 1978). That is, are the effects and side effects of behavior reductive procedures acceptable to those who use, or supervise the use of, those interventions? Ethical questions about effects (Cell 3) are not so much questions of magnitude of effect of behavior reduction, but about how those effects are to be interpreted in light of societal values regarding fair and humane treatment.

Even where a procedure has been proven effective, one is still justified in questioning whether the behaviors targeted for reduction are appropriate (Winett & Winkler, 1972), or to what level the target behavior should be reduced (Wolf, 1978). Another crucial question in this area is the degree to which individuals have a right to receive behavior reductive treatments that have been shown to be more effective than other interventions (Baer, 1970; Van Houten, 1983). Policy analysis is also concerned with the possible negative effects of behavior reduction (Cell 4). Before application of a given procedure, it is necessary to ascertain whether the level of intrusiveness of a given procedure is justified for a behavior of a given severity (Nelson & Rutherford, 1988), or whether the infliction of pain or unhappiness is ever justified (Donnellan et al., 1988).

Are We All Talking About the Same Thing? Any procedure intended to reduce behavior must maximize beneficial effects, while minimizing undesirable side effects; and investigation of these effects may be undertaken through both empirical and policy analysis for any procedure. Current terminology may, however, prevent clear investigation of either the effects or side effects of a whole range of procedures by confounding the two dimensions within a single concept. Although the technical definition of punishment is intended to refer to the effect of a given stimulus on a given behavior, the word's past associations with inhumane practice draw attention to ethical concerns. Although "aversive" appears, for the most part, to refer to the subjective emotional or escape reactions elicited by behavior reductive procedures, it has also been defined functionally, that is, in terms of the behavior reductive effects of aversive stimuli.

Given such confounds, it becomes very difficult to successfully address questions of whether (Evans & Meyer, 1985; McGinnis, Scott-Miller, Neel, & Smith, 1985) or when (Wood & Braaten, 1983) to use punishment or aversive procedures. To ensure that all discussants are focusing on the same question, it would be necessary to specify: (a) the definition of punishment, (b) the definition of aversive procedures, (c) the extent to which the two terms are assumed to overlap, and (d) the extent to which associations with the popular meanings of the terms are implied or intended. Clearly, variation in any of these parameters will affect the way questions concerning behavior reduction are conceptualized and, ultimately, answered.

Alternatives to Current Terminology

Alternatives to Punishment." Yulevich and Axelrod (1983) argued persuasively that the concept of punishment has been a "terminological liability" in behavior analysis, and is in fact obsolete and unnecessary. In its stead, they offer the term deinforcement to refer to all procedures, including both punishment and extinction, designed to reduce behavior. Though there appear to be strong arguments for replacing the term punishment, the introduction of a newly invented term such as deinforcement may prove too awkward and unwieldy to attain widespread usage.

Others have used the terms negative consequences (Pfiffner & O'Leary, 1987; Rosen, O'Leary, Joyce, Conway, & Pfiffner, 1984) or contingent negative consequences (Michael, 1975). Alternately, Harris and Ersner-Hershfield (1978) used the term behavioral suppression in their synthesis of behavior reduction procedures used with severe maladaptive behavior. Though perhaps less tainted than punishment," both "negative consequences" and "suppression" maintain the confound of effectiveness and noxiousness within the same term. The term suppression, for example, appears to carry negative connotations of its own: synonyms of "suppress" listed in Roget's Thesaurus (Lewis, 1978) include "smother ... .. stifle," and "cover up."

Other terms that may imply fewer "conceptual schemes" refer primarily to the response decrement caused by a contingent consequence. Thus both "behavior reduction (or behavior reductive) procedures" (Nelson & Rutherford, 1988; Polsgrove & Reith, 1983) and "deceleration" or "decelerating" (Forehand & Baumeister, 1976; Henriksen & Doughty, 1967; Stainback et al., 1979), have been used to describe procedures ranging from differential reinforcement to timeout to shock. Such terms have the advantage of being more value neutral, as well as drawing attention to the rate or frequency of behavior, a prime consideration in measuring behavior change (Sidman, 1960). The reference to behavioral outcome inherent in the terms may also make them more amenable for training than would a new term such as deinforcement. It may be possible, for instance, to use "behavior reduction (or reductive)" in a generic sense descriptive of procedures, while retaining a term such as deceleration or decelerative as the technical term placed in opposition to reinforcement.

Alternatives to Aversive. While a less emotionally charged term such as deceleration or behavior reduction might facilitate more systematic investigation of the domain of effectiveness, it would not in and of itself address ethical concerns.

The documented potential of behavior reductive procedures to produce noxious or counterproductive side effects obviously represents a boundary limiting their use with human populations. Thus, it is important to retain a term describing the subjective reactions such procedures may engender. There might be some advantage to continued use of the term aversive in this regard, especially since its etymological origins reflect one of the more troubling side effects of deceleration, namely the tendency of organisms to escape from situations in which such stimuli are present (Azrin & Holz, 1966). Confusion caused by previous misdefinition, however, may argue for an alternative. Nelson and Rutherford (1988) have suggested that behavioral procedures can be arranged along a continuum of intrusiveness. The term intrusiveness, which might be defined as the degree to which a treatment disrupts ongoing practice, has the advantage of being applicable to procedures designed to reduce or increase behavior. In addition, it appears to be somewhat more inclusive, with the potential of being applied to either the individual (intruding upon one's personal rights), or to the environment (intruding upon the standard course of events in a therapeutic or educational setting).

Given past abuses, it is not surprising that there are individuals and organizations who argue for a moratorium on the use of behavior reductive procedures (Association for Persons with Severe Handicaps (TASH), 1981; Donnellan, et al., 1988; Guess, 1988), and who suggest that redefinition will only obscure the inherent negative qualities of punishment (Schopp, 1984). Again, however, the current terminology makes it difficult to separate "inherent" negative qualities of punishment from negative historical associations. In addition, there are equally responsible individuals (Martin, 1975; Van Houten, 1983) and organizations (Association for Advancement of Behavior Therapy Task Force Report-Favell et al., 1982; Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders (CCBD, in preparation) who argue that the judicious use of behavior reduction may be necessary or even imperative in some situations. It goes without saying that such polarized positions will not yield a simple solution. Yet the debate may be greatly clarified by a terminology that is in itself more neutral.


The purpose of this article has not been to propose solutions for the behavior reduction debate: The scope of that discussion is too broad, and the emotions run too deep. Rather, our aim has been to present issues and alternatives that may serve to promote discussion. By bringing to light definitional issues, we hope to open up and further lines of inquiry and dialogue in the broad and important area of behavior reduction.

There may be some opportunity for clarification in the current dilemma.. In response to the continuing debate regarding the application of behavior reductive procedures, several national professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association (Landers, 1988), and the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders (CCBD, in preparation) are developing or revising position papers on the subject. This process being undertaken simultaneously by influential organizations offers a unique opportunity for clarification of terms and concepts. By seeking terms that generate empirical investigation, rather than controversy, the national organizations might make an important contribution toward conceptual clarity.

Perhaps the most valuable contribution that could be made by any position paper would be to discourage the use of the terms punishment and aversive as descriptions of psychological or educational processes. Both terms carry connotations of inhumane or cruel practice that renders them unsuitable for purposes of scientific investigation or policy debate. This excess etymological baggage means that communication will be imprecise, since any use of the term punishment may reference a functional definition encompassing only behavior reduction, a traditional definition encompassing pain and retribution, or some unspecified combination of the two. The same could be said of the term aversive.

Salvaging the terms punishment and aversive stimulation would depend on the ability of psychological and educational communities to reshape the usage of the lay community, replacing traditional connotations with carefully phrased scientific definition. The experience of the behavior analytic community is instructive in this regard. The functional definition proposed by Azrin and Holz 1966) has been widely accepted in the teaching of behavioral principles (Van Houten, 1983). Yet adherence to that definition in college texts is inconsistent at best (Cooke, 1984): One widely used text on classroom discipline (Wolfgang & Glickman, 1980) defines punishment as "one person inflicting pain or discomfort on another" (p. 133), and negative reinforcers as "those happenings or events that a student does not desire (extra homework, staying in at recess,

and the like)" (p. 123). Given incomplete control over even the content of college texts, it seems highly unlikely that the academic community can succeed in replacing the public's negative connotations of punishment with an arbitrary technical definition.

The educational community is embedded within the wider culture. Attempts to maintain terms or definitions at odds with the vocabulary of the general culture will be successful only if technical usage does not come into significant conflict with typical cultural usage. The domain of behavior reduction decidedly does not represent such a conflict-free area. Ethical issues raised by the delivery of unpleasant or noxious stimuli have become, and will doubtless continue to be, matters of heated public debate, both in human applications (Salholz, 1986) and animal research (Landers, 1987). Clarifying the issues in public debate is never easy, as the interests of different groups and communities come into conflict. If those communities are defining the same words differently, however, confusion and controversy will be vastly multiplied.

As an analogy, one might imagine that the term torture had been chosen to represent the process of psychotherapy. Regardless of the merits of therapy/torture, reasoned discussion of its effects and side effects would be difficult. Investigators demonstrating the benefits of some forms of therapy (Smith & Glass, 1977) might well be denounced as proponents of a gross indignity. Relatively benign side effects would likely be magnified, confused with the historical uses of torture, and used as important arguments against therapy. Professional organizations and legislative bodies might feel the need to strictly regulate, and perhaps ban, the use of a procedure so closely aligned in the public mind with injustice and inhumanity. When a procedure is thus tagged with an inappropriate or imprecise label, negative reaction to the procedure may be based as much on the connotations of the label as on any qualities inherent in the procedure.

To avoid excess associations, the replacement terms for punishment and aversive procedures should be purely descriptive of the purpose of the treatment. From this standpoint, "behavior reduction" or "behavior reductive procedure" would be ideal for describing procedures designed to decrease the probability of excessive behavior. In and of itself, the term behavior reduction does not address the effects or side effects of the procedures. Nor is it tainted by association with past inhumane practices. It would remain for empirical investigation to describe the effects (including side effects) of behavior reduction procedures, and for ethics and policy analysis to determine whether those qualities are ultimately acceptable to society.

Numerous investigations in the experimental analysis of behavior (Azrin & Holz, 1966; Campbell & Church, 1969), child pyschology (Aronfreed, 1968; Parke & Walters, 1967), applied behavior analysis (Johnston, 1972; Van Houten, 1983), and ethics/policy studies (Martin, 1975; Roos, 1974) have invested the terms punishment and aversive with meanings that may not be easily replaced. Nevertheless, the imprecision of those terms, along with their tendency to conjure up the shades of past abuses, almost guarantees that discussants in the "punishment" debate will use the same word differently. Clearly, neither the decelerative nor the intrusive aspects of behavior reductive procedures can be safely ignored. Yet the current terms, punishment and aversive, confound the domains of the empirical and the ethical, effects and side effects, and thereby make a rational, data-based analysis difficult or impossible. If research and policy analysis are to bring any clarity to the debate over behavior reduction, the current terminology must be replaced with descriptors that are not themselves cues for confusion and controversy.

Emotional reactions generated by the negative connotations of these terms may indeed retard resolution of the behavior reduction debate. Currently, the question is typically framed at its coarsest level: Is the application of punishment or aversive procedures justified (Donellan et al., 1988; McGinnis et al., 1985)? A careful analysis using less pejorative terms would likely yield more subtle distinctions among procedures and situations. Empirical and ethical consideration of the balance of effects and side effects would likely judge some behavior reductive procedures to be acceptable in most situations, some to be justified in only certain situations under careful control and supervision, and a third category of procedure to be rarely if ever justified. The full complexity of the issue has barely begun to be tapped, and most likely will not be until the current terminology is abandoned.

Again, replacing the terms punishment and aversive with more value-neutral terms will not in and of itself resolve the debate over the problem of behavior reduction. The value-laden nature of these questions, as well as the potential for emotional reaction based on those values, makes it possible that the debate over the appropriate use of behavior reduction will never be fully resolved. Standardized use of an alternative terminology, however, would facilitate the careful collection of relevant data and the thoughtful and rational consideration of the implications of those data. Certainly, such a framework would provide a sounder basis than the current conceptual quagmire for decisions regarding the appropriate use of behavior reduction procedures.


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RUSSELL J. SKIBA (CEC Chapter #298) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at Indiana University, Bloomington. STANLEY L. DENO (CEC Chapter #298) is a Professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis.

The authors gratefully acknowledge Lewis Polsgrove, Harold Keller, Frank Wood, James Ysseldyke, Travis Thompson, and Andrew Collins for their helpful comments on earlier versions of the manuscript. Requests for reprints should be sent to Russell J. Skiba, Institute for Child Study, 910 N. State Road 46 Bypass, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN 47405. Manuscript received February 1989; revision accepted August 1989.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Council for Exceptional Children
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Skiba, Russell J.; Deno, Stanley L.
Publication:Exceptional Children
Date:Feb 1, 1991
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