Ted DesMasions and me are tuned. Although we live more than 5000 km far away. I wrote the first post on the punishment and a couple of days later, he brought a second on the same subject. I read the second post and I had the idea for what I’m about to share with you. Ideas are bouncing across the Ocean 😉
Ted coaches a softball team and he plays this drill: “So we use Queen of the Hill. Throwing pairs line up with one partner on the left field foul line and the other in foul territory. Each pair leaves eight feet or so of space between themselves and the next pair so the group as a whole extends down the foul line. The two closest to home plate qualify as “Queens of the Hill,” and the others aspire to move up into that spot. Girls maintain their relative position by completing a clean throw and catch. If a pair overthrows a target or flubs a catch, that pair cedes their spot in the ‘hierarchy’ and sprints to the bottom spot along the foul line. If they forget (or choose not) to actually sprint, the whole team stops, drops their gloves, and comes to the foul line for a single wind sprint out past centerfield and back. Then they all resume their places in the chain and continue”. The question Ted addresses to himself and also to us, readers, is the following: Am I punishing the girls? Punishment comes after the unwanted behavior (poor performing) and should reduce the frequency of that behavior. Right? The question I pose to you, however, is this: what if you sprints do increase the frequency of correct execution of the drill? What sprints becomes in this case? Technically they become the negative reinforcement for the desired behavior. Right?
Confused ? Reinforce one thing, means, necessarily punish another, or at the very least, negatively reinforce another. Take the case of Clicker Training. While I’m marking and reinforcing a behavior with food I am -at the same time- punishing / negative reinforcing everything else. One behavior increases in frequency (and this is part of the definition of reinforcement) and the rest decreases frequency (definition, this time, for punishment). A first explanation could come from the scientific theory:
1 – Reinforcement happens during the behavior; punishment doesn’t ( I beat the dog that ALREADY peed on the carpet).
2 – Negative reinforcement can be avoided by changing behavior; punishment doesn’t (I pull the rein, and in response the horse turns her head. The dog has nothing to change while she is beaten because she peed) .
When I decide that Akira, my border collie, is ready to learn a new criteria, the dog will –of course- try a few times to make me “Click!” performing the old criteria. My ignoring Akira’s behaviors, holding the “Click!” is, in fact, a punishment (I give something that the dog does not want – I hold the food- to decrease the frequency of a behavior: those that do not meet to my criteria). At the same time I’m reinforcing behaviors that meet my criteria.
I’m playing a little bit on the edge of the cliff, I know perfectly well that Clicker is -OBVIOUSLY- different from a stick.
In my opinion, though not often mentioned in the books, the only real yardstick for distinguishing punishment from reinforcement is both the role of the receiver and timing.
1 – Teacher’s action can be avoided by the receiver? Reinforcement. 
2 – Teacher’s action can not be avoided by the receiver? Punishment.
If the action is still contemporary to behavior it’s a reinforcement, otherwise we are in the field of punishment. 
Before going further still, just consider this: when we beat the dog for peeing, or the boy for coming home late, what are we, EXACTLY, punishing? Behavior or who did it? I’m punishing the pee and the delay or the dog and the boy? In short, are we teaching or simply taking our revenge? Before get into any situation where something has already happened, let’s ask to ourselves whether our intervention will change things for the better: if the answer is yes, we can proceed, otherwise it is better to think of something else.  This idea is not mine but it’s from Dr. G. Lathman . Most of the time our “punishments” are directed against those who have misbehaved. They are no longer teaching, but revenge or vent for our frustration. Let’s stop for a moment to analyze the situation: we can realize the aims of our intervention and change them accordingly.
So, what’s Ted doing with his girls? Is he punishing behavior or is he reinforcing others one? Is he taking is revenge against something?
The athletes are training. If we could define training as a “macro-behavior”, we could say that Ted is reinforcing more or less negatively his girls. Ted’s interventions are contingent on behavior (which is the training in its entirety), but they can also be avoided by the girls (just by getting more engage in the next round). Knowing Ted, I can also say that his intents are to reinforce the correct behavior and do not punish anything else. Dealing with behaviors intentions count. Pretty much.
The true difference is in the quality of information that we communicate to our students. The more the environment is positive (Clicker Training and TAGteach in my practice), the more information will be easy, available and shared. It will be less “heavy” from the point of view of the emotional arousal, less unbalancing for the receiver. As we move and get closer to the edge of coercion information’ quality deteriorates, it becomes difficult, very heavy and very unbalancing. Only people who are particularly “gifted” and with iron-gutt, are able to teach with these tools. A great skill is needed to be able to communicate just saying “No”. It ‘much easier to create confusion and fear than learning.
Do You want a proof? Do this game with someone. You can be in the group but it’s good also if you are only two. Who will be trained exit from the room. The group decides what to get him to do on his return (things easy for charity: take a book, sit in a chair). In return the teacher can guide his pupil just saying “Yes” (or using a clicker, if you have one at hand, marking every behavior towards the right direction). Then reverse roles. Bring out the trainer, choose a new behavior and guide him, this time, only using the word “No” (for which just stop every wrong thing he does). Is there something different between the two procedures?
Play yourself the role of the student and try to get you driven both ways: do you feel any difference?
 I will always remember with pleasure the confusion I had in mind after the conference Prof. Ruiz Rosalez gave to Clicker Expo 2012. Conference with similar arguments to those Idiscussed here. With great skill, the professor has led us to be almost unable to distinguish between reinforcement and punishment.
 With “teacher” I indicate who or what is acting upon the receiver.
 Question: if it rains and I have my umbrella, rain reinforces my “have an umbrella with me.” And if it doesn’t’ rains? Bring my umbrella is punished by the lack of rain (I cannot order rain ..). Unless, as soon as I reaIize the sunny day I go back home to leave the umbrella. The sun negatively reinforces my “having the umbrella”. At this point, between punishment and reinforcement the meter is convenience: better to lose 3 minutes and return home, or to carry around all day a useless umbrella? If the next time, with the sun, I will not take the umbrella this will mean that taking out the umbrella with the sun the previous day, was negatively reinforced (I do not like the concomitant presence of sun and umbrella, reinforcing my “leave umbrella home” next day). What a beautiful mess isn’t it?
 Beating the dog improves the status of my carpet? I would say no. Maybe the dog was too much time alone in the house, maybe he has a little problem in the bladder or maybe I took it out too early this morning …
 “Unless what you are about to say or do has a high probability for making things better, do not say it and do not do it.” Lathman: “The Power of Positive Parenting”