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Punisher Assessments: Why and How?

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

By Trudy E. Georgio, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA

The use of punishment procedures in the field of applied behavior analysis is controversial. Behavior analysts must adhere to ethical obligations according to the Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts.

The ethical considerations regarding the use of punishment revolve around four major issues:

  • The client's right to safe and humane treatment.

  • The client's right to effective treatment.

  • The professional's responsibility to use the least restrictive procedures.

  • Policy and Procedural Safeguards

So you’ve decided to (ethically) use a punishment procedure (under appropriate supervision). Now what? Conduct a punishment assessment!

Punisher Assessments are a variety of data-based methods that are used to present one or more stimuli contingent on a target response and then measuring the future effects on the rate of responding (similar to reinforcer assessment).

Advantages: the sooner an effective punisher can be identified, the sooner it can be used to decrease behavior (as part of a treatment package, as per our ethical code!).

  • Punisher assessments also inform us of the intensity of the punisher needed to effectively decrease or eliminate the problem behavior

  • Interventionists use the data to develop a hypothesis on the relative effectiveness of each stimulus change as a punisher

Types of punisher assessments:

  • Stimulus avoidance assessment: various stimuli are delivered noncontingently, the behavior analyst measures the escape and avoidance responses and negative vocalizations after delivery of an aversive stimulus

Example: The BCBA presents Lily with a variety of sounds and records her escape/

avoid responses and vocal output responses.

  • Brief punishment assessment: potential punishers are evaluated during brief sessions in a multielement design and behavioral suppression is measured

Example: The BCBA presents Lily with 4 different stimuli contingent on maladaptive

behavior and behavior suppression is measured using a multielement design.

  • Activity assessment: measures engagement in activities that are freely available; required engagement in low-probability activities is a possible punisher

Example: The BCBA presents Lily with 4 different freely available stimuli and records

engagement. The items that she does not choose to engage with may represent

possible punishers.

  • Choice assessment: measures the preference of staff or client when there are multiple effective (potential) punishers

Example: The BCBA asks Lily what things she does not like, or asks Lily's parents what

stimuli she avoids. These stimuli may represent possible punishes.

Learn more information about reinforcer and punisher assessments, and more with #TruToGo! 

Check out our # TruCrew alumni testimonials here!

Stephanie’s client engages in severe head hitting behavior, and her parents have consented to use a punishment procedure. Stephanie presents Suzanne with a train sound, loud horn, introduction of a recording of a baby crying, and loud classical music. She measures head hitting behavior and graphs it on a multielement graph. Which stimulus is the most likely punisher?

A. Train

B. Horn

C. Baby Crying

D. Classical Music

Answer: A. This is an example of a brief punisher assessment. Because the rate of head hitting was lower in the train condition (when presented with the train sound), Stephanie can say that the train sound is the most likely punishing stimulus.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied behavior analysis (3rd ed.). Hoboken, NJ: Pearson, p. 116-118.  

The Behavior Analyst Certification Board Professional and Ethical Compliance Code for Behavior Analysts. 2017.Professional And Ethical Compliance Code For Behavior Analysts. [online]

Van Houten, R., Axelrod, S., Bailey, J. S., Favell, J. E., Foxx, R. M., Iwata, B. A., & Lovaas, O. I. (1988). The right to effective behavioral treatment.Journal of applied behavior analysis,21(4), 381–384.

Verriden, A.L. and Roscoe, E.M. (2019), An evaluation of a punisher assessment for decreasing automatically reinforced problem behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 52: 205-226. doi:10.1002/jaba.509

Trudy Georgio is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Licensed Behavior Analyst in the state of Texas. She is the founder of Tru Behavior Development, LLC who is motivated by effecting socially significant behavior change and disseminating the science of behavior to the next generation of behavior analysts!

Learn more information about reinforcer and punisher assessments, and more with #TruToGo

Check out our former student testimonials here!

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