As an Irish primary school teacher who has been working in a special education context for the past number of years, the subject of applied behaviour analysis (ABA) was of interest to me. While reading about the principles of ABA, the topic of punishment emerged as a controversial issue. In this article, the emergence of the issue is discussed alongside a critical reflection on the controversy noting three main observations. Furthermore, I suggest some ways that the issue could progress most productively. As a teacher, the topic of punishment is one of importance as there is a growing debate over how to meet the growing social, emotional and behavioural needs that are in our classrooms. The area of punishment is considered a controversial strategy so I enjoyed reading into the issue in the context of ABA.
ABA could be considered as having lived through a series of controversies, criticisms and debates since its inception. Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan (1997) wrote that there have been incidences where negative views may have been warranted whereas more may have been unjustified. These issues have led to ABA presiding through periods of acceptance and rejection along with spells of crisis. They believed at the time of writing their book that applied behaviour analysis still had not gained widespread acceptance and put forward seven hypotheses for this opinion. One such hypothesis was that ABA’s connections with punishment had led to much controversy over the years. Leslie (2002) subscribes to this theory stating that the use of punishment with individuals who have developmental disabilities had resulted in a controversy lasting over a decade. Central characters championing this view strongly were McGee et. al. (1987) in their writing and public speaking engagements (Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan, 1997).
McGee et. al. (1987) could be considered scathing in their criticism of applied behaviour analysis and the controversy regarding ABA’s links to punishment could be viewed to peak when their book, Gentle Teaching, was published. In their work, they cite ABA as a practice that is to be viewed as evil and controlling. Their central argument appeared to be that ABA encouraged only contingently valuing an individual if the rules are followed and that behaviour is managed through restraining and restriction. Jones and McCaughey (1992) wrote that in McGee et. al.’s (1987) work, they even compared ABA to a methodology that condones torture. Baker and Allen (2012) remarked that the wider community could be seen to share these concerns as punishment was being increasingly used with examples including electric shocks, forced body positions and the removal of possessions or opportunities to engage in desirable activities.
The impact of these criticisms and how they were portrayed had a tangible impact on ABA’s popularity as Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan (1997) discussed particularly in the context of Irish psychology practice. McGee presented his thoughts at the Mental Handicap Group of the Psychological Society of Ireland Annual Easter Workshop in 1989 where he spoke of behaviourism as an evil practice based on punishment and one which would never benefit individuals with learning disabilities. The effects of this presentation were compounded over the next two years by Brandon and Lovett who shared McGee’s views and thus led to Irish psychologists listening for three years to anti-behaviourist views which inevitably affected its adoption rate. The same impact could be viewed in America where parent support groups began to take a stand against the use of punishment while several states banned punishment techniques in treatment (Leslie, 2002). It is clear from reading the literature that this is a keenly contested debate with both sides having their merits.
Reflecting on this controversial debate between the side led by McGee et. al. (1987) and applied behaviour analysts bring three key observations to mind regarding the dangers of marrying oneself to an ideology, ambiguity and the value of seeing both sides.
The dangers of marrying oneself to an ideology
Charlie Munger (Kaufman, 2005, cited in Clear, 2019) said that “this business of not drifting into extreme ideology is very, very important in life. If you want to end up wise, heavy ideology is very likely to prevent that outcome.” This piece of advice from a man who has ties to the finance world as opposed to the world of psychology came to mind when reading about the debate that occurred around punishment in the 1980s and 1990s. There were numerous descriptions of this ongoing debate that presented it as one which became rather unsavoury. Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan (1997, p. 94) described the debate as ‘acrimonious and divisive’ as well as featuring misinformation and objectivity while Baker and Allen (2012) also noted the presence of vitriol. One could consider that when tempers flare in debate and discussion turns into attack, reason and objectivity can go out the window leaving the quality of the exchange to be compromised.
Munger’s quote may be relevant in viewing this controversial debate as Jones and McCaughey (1992) remark on the strength of the language used in the work of McGee et. al. (1987) while also, unfortunately, noting that there was wrongful reporting in their book regarding the use of ammonia spray as a punishment when it was, in fact, water. This could appear as a key point as the idea of spraying water mist in an individual’s face could evoke a different reaction than that of spraying ammonia. Interestingly, when McGee wrote his rebuttal, rather than acknowledging any mistake on their part, he stated that “whether involving water, ammonia, contingent electric shock, or any other aversive procedure, the point was to question critically any practice that might offend human dignity” (1992, p. 870). It could appear that the discussion had become so fraught that facts should not stand in the way of winning the debate.
There is a shared responsibility between both sides, however, as Jones and McCaughey (1992) conclude that even though gentle teaching and applied behaviour analysis framed themselves as polarising sides which argued vehemently against the other, there are actually a number of overlapping principles that have not been observed mainly due to a misreading of each other’s philosophy. Proponents of the ABA methods who criticised gentle teaching may have been surprised to find that Jones (1990) and Mudford (1985) noted there were many procedural similarities between the two methods such as stimulus control and shaping while the differences existed mainly in the philosophical realm. One could speculate having reflected on this element of the debate that if both parties were less rigid in their devotion to their respective ideology and willing to unbiasedly review the other side’s principles and practices at the time, a less emotive and more valuable discussion may have taken place leading to improved wisdom and practice on all sides.
The debate may have been so heated that what was being debated may not have been so clear. Jones and McCaughey (1992, p. 862) believed that a core issue at the centre of the debate was defining the word punishment. This was a view that was mentioned elsewhere in the literature (Leslie, 2002; Alberto and Troutman, 2013). Leslie (2002) elaborated further saying that punishment in colloquial language can refer to an aversive stimulus delivered in no relation to behaviour or contingent to a response. Taking this into consideration, one’s opinion on punishment may differ greatly depending on which type of punishment one is referring to. If people believed that ABA condoned punishment in no relation to behaviour, it would be of no surprise that ABA would gain a poor reputation and people should rightly be vocal in their disdain and Leslie (2002) goes on to confirm that some believed punishment was used in the context of revenge, harm or cruelty.
Alternatively, Fisher, Piazza and Roane (2011, p. 348) present their view of punishment in terms of ABA. They discuss the two contrasting types of punishment: positive punishment and negative punishment. Positive punishment refers to the contingent presentation of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour and negative punishment refers to the contingent removal of a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behaviour. Negative punishment typically refers to response cost and time-out. This definition of punishment appears far more reasonable and clearer as punishment is utilised to decrease a target behaviour and if harnessed appropriately, would have many advantages.
Jones and McCaughey (1992, p. 862) put forward the thought-provoking view that depending on your perspective, many strategies can be considered punishment and cite O’Brien’s (1989) theory that any treatment that results in decreasing a target behaviour may be considered punishment regardless of how else an individual may describe it. Building on this point, Iwata (1987, p. 363) discusses how it can even be difficult to distinguish between positive and negative. If a stimulus is removed like in negative punishment, a stimulus must take its place which could be considered positive punishment. This discussion can result in a debate comparable to “is the glass half full or half empty?” where neither answer is correct or incorrect and could be considered dependent on your outlook on life.
With all these different interpretations of the word punishment and the terminology surrounding it during such an important and worthwhile discussion, it would be difficult to ensure a coherent discussion. Agreeing a single definition of the word may have provided the most productive first step to an agreement as to how appropriate it is to use punishment as a strategy.
A Debate Worth Having
Bearing in mind the tone of the debate and the ambiguity surrounding the content, there is an apparent consensus that the nucleus of the discussion is one worth having as even within ABA, there are polarizing views regarding punishment as some applied behaviour analysts acknowledge that using punishment can be aversive and repressive – as can many therapeutic approaches (Dillenberger, O’Reilly and Keenan, 1997). Jones and McCaughey (1992) reinforce this view stating that there have been cases where behavioural principles have been applied in aversive and undesirable circumstances. To demonstrate how truly divisive the use of punishment concerning ABA is, one needs only to read that Skinner – a founding father of behaviourism – believed that punishment should ideally not be used at all because he believed that it does not work (Staddon, 2014).
Leslie (2002) endorsed the view that critiquing the validity of using punishment was important. Acknowledging that there were controversies attached to its use, the case was made that ABA had learned from these and had developed a set of principles that could aid the prevention of such circumstances occurring again. Best practice was developed through the guise of six fundamental rights (Van Houten et. al., 1988) for the individual being treated including the right to the best treatment available. The use of punishment was discouraged unless considered the best intervention to cause a significant behavioural change. This could be considered an important step in the right direction as ABA had acknowledged the need to mitigate the overuse of punishment or its inappropriate use. Of course, writing down a principle is very different from applying a principle and whether this principle is consistently used remains to be seen, as the literature states. Fisher, Piazza and Roane (2011) pointed to thirty-five years of applied research related to the use of punishment which divulged there were advantages and disadvantages to its uses. Whilst many applied behaviour analysts noted these disadvantages and the need to use punishment sparingly, Jarmolowicz and Tetreault (2015) note that in large-scale program reviews, punishment is still used more regularly than should be expected. They also provide an alternative view to that of Fisher, Piazza and Roane (2011) stating that punishment is underexplored in applied research and therefore, it is hard to advocate the use of punishment as an evidence-based approach of any value. Taking both sides of the debate into consideration, there are some ways that applied behaviour analysts could decide to progress this issue to a fruitful conclusion.
Throughout this article, there have been minor suggestions to move this controversy to a satisfactory conclusion or at least, facilitate a productive debate. These suggestions include being open to alternative and conflicting views along with defining punishment clearly for anyone outside of the applied behaviour analysis realm so they may better understand what is being discussed. Furthermore, I would also suggest that more comprehensive applied research be conducted around punishment procedures whilst always ensuring that punishment is only used in alignment with Van Houten et. al.’s (1988) principle that people receive the most effective treatment available.
Although Donnellan and LaVigna (1990) believe that there is no need for further research in the area of punishment because alternative methods such as extinction and reinforcement exist, one would agree with Vollmer’s (2002) assertion that there is no benefit to be gained from ignoring punishment as it is something that happens in everyday life. With this in mind, applied behaviour analysts have a responsibility to understand these procedures and their impact on behaviour change. As Jarmolowicz and Tetreault (2015) stated that punishment was an under-researched area, there are also concerns over the quality of the research that does exist. Research around the area of punishment can be difficult to interpret as it is often confused by its unwitting combination with extinction or verbal reprimands (Lerman and Vorndran, 2002).
Regarding what specific elements of the punishment should be researched, there are many suggestions. Horner (2002) warns against over-specific and narrow analyses and instead points in the direction of analysing the most common and complex uses of punishment to ensure a more effective technology of applied behaviour change. Lerman and Vorndran (2002) alternatively recommend focusing on less intrusive punishment procedures and how to fade them out. I believe combining the two suggestions by analysing the most common punishment procedures and how to fade them out successfully would provide the most benefit at this time as this is an area of interest to all people – not just behaviour analysts. Indeed, Iwata et. al. (1997) experienced some success moving from a continuous schedule to an intermittent schedule of punishment and broadening this type of research would be of great intrigue.
It is worth noting that this article does not seek to unequivocally condone the use of punishment but merely cite the need to research its use. Vollmer (2002) believed that punishment should be avoided until avoiding it would be of greater cost than engaging with it which appears a reasonable view. Iwata et. al. (1997) were also wary of punishment and the ethical issues surrounding it but believed that it may be necessary when the reinforcers that maintain a behaviour cannot be identified or controlled.
Punishment should always be used in adherence to the principle of being the best practice available and when used be in line with Lerman and Vorndran’s (2002) guidelines. They recommend “the least amount of punishment that is effective (i.e lowest intensity, shortest duration) should be used” (p. 441). As a relatively unpopular practice (Iwata et. al., 1997), there are concerns over the acceptability of punishment and this may explain why applied behaviour analysts have under-researched the area. There is a suggestion that an unwillingness to publish failed punishment studies exists (Lerman and Vorndran, 2002) and this is understandable as successfully researching punishment is contentious enough without drawing criticism for research conducted that has demonstrated unfavourable side effects. Despite this, applied researchers need to make their work known for the procedures to be improved.
The topic of punishment and its efficacy is one which emerges in teaching staffrooms regularly. It is interesting to research the topic through the lens of applied behaviour analysis. Much like in teaching, there is no black-and-white answer to its use but there are guidelines to ensure it is not misused. Punishment is best served to reduce behaviour when other methods of intervention such as extinction or differential treatments have been used and proven ineffective. It may also be necessary when the reinforcer that is maintaining a behaviour cannot be identified or controlled. Using the least amount of punishment necessary is, of course, most appropriate and when punishment is used, it should be viewed as an intervention that is phased out as soon as possible. With this in mind, there is still far more scope for applied research to be conducted in this area and teachers – along with parents and other caregivers – would be served well by keeping abreast of the results if this occurs.
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