Reinforcement vs Punishment: From Animal Training to Theology (Full Post)

Ever felt “positively punished” when your dog-trainer or psychologist inundate you with these lingo? Reinforcement and punishment are important components of social interactions. They are most often discussed in context of those wielding authority and their subjects (e.g., in childrearing and animal training); occasionally to interactions between equals. However, these concepts speak even to unexpected territories such as the intellectual and spiritual pursuit of theology.

I apologise for the lack of citations. I have been a pet trainer for a dozen years, and I am afraid I won’t be able to accurate cite where I first learnt what at this point!


First, let’s tackle them in bite-size pieces.

Punishment versus Reinforcement

  • Punishment: To decrease the probability of a behaviour occurring in the future—it discourages the target behaviour.
  • Reinforcement: To increase the probability of a behaviour occurring in the future—it encourages the target behaviour.

“Positive” vs. “Negative”

  • Positive: when something is added, or introduced.
  • Negative: when something is subtracted, or removed.

Now onto the combos:

Positive Reinforcement vs. Negative Reinforcement

  • Positive reinforcement: To introduce something desirable to increase the probability of the target behaviour in the future.
  • Negative reinforcement: To remove something undesirable to increase the probability of the target behaviour in the future.

Positive Punishment vs. Negative Punishment

  • Positive Punishment: To introduce something undesirable after a behaviour to reduce the probability of the target behaviour in the future.
  • Negative Punishment: To remove something desirable after a behaviour to reduce the probability of the target behaviour in the future.

Ah, a table.

A common-sense way to organise this information is as follow, which box does it fit in?



What a wife might do to get her husband to take the trash out!

Disclaimer: These are execrated examples for comical effects; they are not instructions as to how should one conduct oneself in a marriage!!

What reinforcement/punishments do the following strategies utilise?

1. When husband forgets to take the trash out, wife pouts for 2 hours.

  • Positive Punishment: By introducing her pouting (something undesirable), she decreases the probability of him forgetting to take out the trash in the future.

2. When husband forgets to take the trash out, wife erases his TV recordings.

  • Negative Punishment: By erasing his TV recordings (removing something desirable), she decreases the probability of him forgetting to take out the trash in the future.

3. When husband takes the trash out, wife cooks his favourite dessert.

  • Positive reinforcement: By introducing the fulfilling experience of his favourite dessert (something desirable), she increases the probability of him taking out the trash in the future.

4. Wife withholds dinner until husband takes the trash out, then she feeds him.

  • Negative reinforcement: By serving dinner she removes hunger (something undesirable) after he takes out the trash, she increases the probability of him taking out the trash in the immediate future.

Answer Table (though there are always ways to debate it as I will demonstrate below)


How we can morph them, one into another!

As you can see, though in definitions they seem cut and dry, the differences between the three concepts can be very subtle. Next, I am going to thoroughly confuse you with the goal to make you feel better about having trouble distinguishing the concepts, and hopefully to clarify the most subtle distinctions between them.

How the positive punishment example can turn into negative reinforcement?

  • Later in the evening, the husband realises why his wife was pouting. He then takes out the trash to bring peace back into the house. The wife then ceases pouting, thus turning the event into a negative reinforcement. She removes her pouting (something undesirable) to increase the probability of him taking out the trash!

How the positive reinforcement example can turn into a negative reinforcement?

  • If the wife had withheld cooking the dessert until the husband takes the trash out. To remove his dessert craving (something undesirable), the husband takes out the trash.

How the negative reinforcement example can turn into punishment?

  • Let’s say the husband refuses to take out the trash on account that his wife is holding dinner hostage, as he considers it quite an inhumane treatment. The wife sticks to her words and does not serve dinner. The wife believes by doing so, her husband will henceforth be less likely to forget taking out the trash in order to avoid going to bed hungry and having strife in the house (the punishments).
  • Or as my husband Joshua says, he is being negatively reinforced to make his own sandwiches.

Fun, eh?

Example: Negative Reinforcement in Animal Training

In zoos and conservatories, it is often difficult to be physically close enough to a naïve animal to train them via positive reinforcement. Punishments, on the other hand, often cause them to become increasingly aggressive.

In order to minister to them, their handlers often begin with negative reinforcement. For example, an unpleasant thing that could be removed is the handlers’ own presence, the behaviours to be encouraged/increased is “not running away.”

For example, a handler may begin by standing 50 feet from his wild llama, as long as the llama does not spit or run away, after several seconds, the handler walk away. Removing the unpleasant stimuli (the human being) to encourage the desirable behaviour (llama not running away and not spitting).

This is often combined with the technique known as “shaping.” Shaping is a gradual training technique with small incremental goals. For example, the handler will slowly decrease the distance and/or increase the duration of his presence until he can touch  the llama. It is often an amusing process for the observers, as the handler must not remove himself even when the llama spits at him—else the handler would be negatively reinforcing the spitting behaviour!

Example: Biblical Christian Theology vs. Popular False Doctrines

It should now be abundantly clear which of these three techniques, at least in human interactions, would foster affection and genuine desires for modification, and which fosters resentment, begrudging submission, and potential future rebellion.

Being a Biblical Christian is so much a part of me that, as an author, I am unable to discuss these concepts without providing examples that are of utmost meaning and importance to me.

I will discuss the biblical, grace-based theology as being driven by positive reinforcement, prosperity “gospel” as negative reinforcement driven, and work-based theology as punishment driven.

Work-based theology is based on punishment

Up to a few years ago, I fell prey to “work-based theology.” It is a perversion of Christian doctrine that has unfortunately become a caricature of what Christians are supposed to look like. It is a theology based on punishment.

 “You must work hard, give money, abstain from bad things, otherwise God will punish you (you will get undesirable things): you will go to hell, God will stop loving you, God will give you cancer, etc.”

This is a very sinister false teaching: not only because it defames the character of the biblical God, but because it also contains just enough truth to be convincing to human nature.

However, according to Hebrews 6:1, and 9:14, these are “dead works” that we need to be “saved from,” because they steal our joy and lead us, to self-righteousness and judgement of others instead of to God—the thing that Jesus Christ Himself spent much of His time on earth arguing and warning against (Matthew 23:13).

I learnt that God is not a lover for hire, and His affection is not up for sale—to say otherwise is to defame His character. You cannot buy Him with money because His love is priceless (Psalm 36:7). Nor can you buy Him via good behaviour. The standard of acceptance is perfection; even the best human beings are just not “good enough”—your hands might be clean enough to eat with, but you would probably wash them a few more times with special soap before you perform neurosurgery. He freely gives it to whom He wills, He makes them perfect through the perfect life of Jesus (He is that special soap), not because they are great, for they are not, but because He loves whom He loves in spite of who they are and in spite of what they do (Romans 5:8-11).

Indeed, throughout the Bible, there is much on punishment (judgements against those who oppose God) and negative reinforcement (the old-testament’s laws and rules), but they are used to highlight the new covenant: a Grace-based Theology that is based on positive reinforcement.

Through punishment and negative reinforcement, He made a point that natural human beings are just not going to be spotless and blameless, as is required to inherit God. Therefore, grace is necessary. God must first act to deal with sins through Jesus as a sinless sacrifice, and to give the believers new hearts, which empowers them to obey Him joyously, rather than laboriously. The believers actually MUST take passive roles in their life-changes—you cannot cause yourself to be born again the same way you cannot cause yourself to be born the first time.

Grace-Based Theology is based on Positive Reinforcement: What the bible actually teaches.

Grace-based theology is proclaimed throughout the entire Protestant bible:

  1. As early as Genesis 3, immediately after “the fall”
  2. Transitioning in the books of the prophets (e.g., God stated many times in Ezekiel, that He will give His people a new heart and His Spirit, so that they can obey Him joyously, rather than laboriously, Ezekiel 36:26, 18:31, 11:19)
  3. It is shown most clearly in the teaching of Jesus Christ and in letters of the Apostles (see below).

For those whom God loves: He cannot love you any more or any less no matter what you do because “if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Timothy 2:13, ESV).  You would respond to this love with the way you live, as the Spirit of God lives and walks with you, and empowers you to obey His commandments by giving you a new heart (Hebrews 10:22).

The desirable things you would gain by responding to His love are that His name is glorified (1 Peter 2: 11-12, this is desirable to you because you love Him), and your eternal rewards—some reward may occur in this life, but most upon Jesus Christ’s return (1 Peter 1:1-25).

Although some negative reinforcements are also applicable (2 Peter 1, a person’s inability to love God has been removed, eternal separation from God’s grace is removed), they are but side effects; the main focus remains on the reward (that is, God Himself!) when one inspects the entirety of the Bible carefully.

No one can meet the living God and stay the same (Ezekiel 36:26). There are bound to be changes in one’s life, but you would no longer require any threat of punishment because your heart is being renewed every day through grace, your outward behaviour will change as a side effect (2 Corinthians 4:13-18).

Prosperity Theology is a perversion of the Gospel, based on negative reinforcement

A prime example of negative reinforcement, the prosperity “gospel” says, “If you believe in God, and if you give us your money/service, God will remove the undesirable things in your life: poverty, sickness, and unhappiness.”

It is often disguised as positive reinforcement: “send me this seed money, and God will send a divine deposit into your bank account that no one knows from whence it came”. It takes advantage of people by promising to remove poverty and sicknesses.

Some also wrongly say, “You are a victor in Christ. If you have enough faith, he will heal you from anything in this life: relational strife, poverty, and sickness.” 

Yet those same people claim to worship Jesus Christ–who suffered from all these things despite being, Himself, God, and obviously possessing tremendous faith.

Jesus experienced much relational strife before He was first crucified and then resurrected. In Mark 3:21, Jesus’s earthly family wanted to seize Him because they thought He had gone crazy! After the resurrection, however, His mother and half-brothers worshipped Him as God (Acts 1:14). Incidentally, what do you think it would take, in order for YOUR mother to worship you as the Sinless God? How about for your little brothers to write letters proclaiming your divinity and die defending it?

Jesus left His heavenly throne to suffer poverty  and homelessness (Luke 9:58), and could not even afford to pay His taxes without a miracle (Matthew 17:24-27), until He returned to His throne after the ascension (Revelation 1:12-20). Jesus was sick with anxiety in the Garden of Gethsemane and suffered from an episode of Hematidrosis (sweating blood; Luke 22:39-44).

None of these sufferings were removed from Him until His resurrection. It is not biblical to claim that if we believe in Christ, all our suffering will be removed in this life.


I write this to encourage you who seek the truth. The Bible says that we must discern between true and false gospels (1 Pet. 2:11 John 4:1–3Jude 4Rev. 2:2), and mature in our understanding of Christ’s work “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” (Ephesians 4:13-14, ESV)

I state, again, that my point-of-view may not reflect those of my colleagues in PsychologyInAction, as you might have found this article through that site. My faith colours every lens through which I see life, so it colours this discussion on punishment, negative and positive reinforcement.

Discussions are welcome!

More Food For Thought?

– Law enforcement practices are almost entirely based on punishment.

– Much of self-esteem literature is based on negative reinforcement.

– Combining shaping and positive reinforcement I once taught a naïve kitten, in 25 minutes, to sit, stay, and stop batting at the treat. Unfortunately I was in my PJs in that video, so while it is fun to show friends, it is not appropriate for posting on the Internet. When I can get my hands on another naïve cat (and manage to dress more formally) I will write another post on it—those who live near UCLA are encouraged to volunteer their cats! I have absolutely no prejudice against dogs or other animals, but people seem more convinced when cats can be trained. 😀

One thought on “Reinforcement vs Punishment: From Animal Training to Theology (Full Post)

  1. Pingback: The Differences Between Positive and Negative Reinforcements and Punishments. » Psychology In Action

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