The old village stocks in Chapeltown, Lancashire, England

Punishment is the imposition of an undesirable or unpleasant outcome upon a group or individual, meted out by an authority—in contexts ranging from child discipline to criminal law—as a response and deterrent to a particular action or behaviour that is deemed undesirable or unacceptable. The reasoning may be to condition a child to avoid self-endangerment, to impose social conformity (in particular, in the contexts of compulsory education or military discipline), to defend norms, to protect against future harms (in particular, those from violent crime), and to maintain the law—and respect for rule of law—under which the social group is governed.[1][2][3][4][5] Punishment may be self-inflicted as with self-flagellation and mortification of the flesh in the religious setting, but is most often a form of social coercion.

The unpleasant imposition may include a fine, penalty, or confinement, or be the removal or denial of something pleasant or desirable. The individual may be a person, or even an animal. The authority may be either a group or a single person, and punishment may be carried out formally under a system of law or informally in other kinds of social settings such as within a family.[2] Negative consequences that are not authorized or that are administered without a breach of rules are not considered to be punishment as defined here.[4] The study and practice of the punishment of crimes, particularly as it applies to imprisonment, is called penology, or, often in modern texts, corrections; in this context, the punishment process is euphemistically called "correctional process".[6] Research into punishment often includes similar research into prevention.

Justifications for punishment include retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. The last could include such measures as isolation, in order to prevent the wrongdoer's having contact with potential victims, or the removal of a hand in order to make theft more difficult.[7] Of the four justifications, only retribution is part of the definition of punishment and none of the other justifications is a guaranteed outcome, aside from obvious exceptions such as an executed man being incapacitated with regard to further crimes.[4]

If only some of the conditions included in the definition of punishment are present, descriptions other than "punishment" may be considered more accurate. Inflicting something negative, or unpleasant, on a person or animal, without authority is considered revenge or spite rather than punishment.[4] In addition, the word "punishment" is used as a metaphor, as when a boxer experiences "punishment" during a fight. In other situations, breaking a rule may be rewarded, and so receiving such a reward naturally does not constitute punishment. Finally the condition of breaking (or breaching) the rules must be satisfied for consequences to be considered punishment.[4]

Punishments differ in their degree of severity, and may include sanctions such as reprimands, deprivations of privileges or liberty, fines, incarcerations, ostracism, the infliction of pain, amputation and the death penalty.Corporal punishment refers to punishments in which physical pain is intended to be inflicted upon the transgressor.Punishments may be judged as fair or unfair in terms of their degree of reciprocity and proportionality[3] to the offense.Punishment can be an integral part of socialization, and punishing unwanted behaviour is often part of a system of pedagogy or behavioral modification which also includes rewards.[8]


Barbed wire is a feature of prisons.
A modern jail cell.
Hester Prynne at the Stocks – an engraved illustration from an 1878 edition of The Scarlet Letter
Punishment of an offender in Hungary, 1793

In philosophy

Various philosophers have presented definitions of punishment.[1][2][3][4][5] Conditions commonly considered necessary properly to describe an action as punishment are that

  1. it is imposed by an authority,
  2. it involves some loss to the supposed offender,
  3. it is in response to an offence and
  4. the human (or other animal) to whom the loss is imposed should be deemed at least somewhat responsible for the offence.

In psychology

Introduced by B.F. Skinner, punishment has a more restrictive and technical definition. Along with reinforcement it belongs under the operant conditioning category. Operant conditioning refers to learning with either punishment (often confused as negative reinforcement) or a reward that serves as a positive reinforcement of the lesson to be learned[9]. In psychology, punishment is the reduction of a behavior via application of an unpleasant stimulus ("positive punishment") or removal of a pleasant stimulus ("negative punishment"). Extra chores or spanking are examples of positive punishment, while removing an offending student's recess or play privileges are examples of negative punishment. The definition requires that punishment is only determined after the fact by the reduction in behavior; if the offending behavior of the subject does not decrease, it is not considered punishment. There is some conflation of punishment and aversives, though an aversion that does not decrease behavior is not considered punishment in psychology[10]. Additionally, "aversive stimulus" is a label behaviorists generally apply to negative reinforcers (as in avoidance learning), rather than punishers.

In socio-biology

Punishment is sometimes called retaliatory or moralistic aggression;[11] it has been observed in all[clarification needed] species of social animals,leading evolutionary biologists to conclude that it is an evolutionarily stable strategy, selected because it favors cooperative behavior.[12][13]

Examples against sociobiological use

One criticism of the claim of all social animals being evolutionarily hardwired for punishment comes from studies of animals, such as the octopuses near Capri, Italy that suddenly formed communal cultures from having, until then lived solitary lives. During a period of heavy fishing and tourism that encroached on their territory, they started to live in groups, learning from each other, especially hunting techniques. Small, younger octopuses could be near the fully grown octopuses without being eaten by them, even though they, like other Octopus vulgaris, were cannibals until just before the group formation.[citation needed] The authors stress that this behavior change happened too fast to be a genetic characteristic in the octopuses, and that there were certainly no mammals or other "naturally" social animals punishing octopuses for cannibalism involved. The authors also note that the octopuses adopted observational learning without any evolutionary history of specialized adaptation for it.[14][15]

There are also arguments against the notion of punishment requiring intelligence, based on studies of punishment in very small-brained animals such as insects. There is proof of honey bee workers with mutations that makes them fertile laying eggs only when other honey bees are not observing them, and that the few that are caught in the act are killed.[citation needed] This is corroborated by computer simulations proving that a few simple reactions well within mainstream views of the extremely limited intelligence of insects are sufficient to emulate the "political" behavior observed in great apes. The authors argue that this falsifies the claim that punishment evolved as a strategy to deal with individuals capable of knowing what they are doing.[16]

In the case of more complex brains, the notion of evolution selecting for specific punishment of intentionally chosen breaches of rules and/or wrongdoers capable of intentional choices (for example, punishing humans for murder while not punishing lethal viruses) is subject to criticism from coevolution issues. That punishment of individuals with certain characteristics (including but, in principle, not restricted to mental abilities) selects against those characteristics, making evolution of any mental abilities considered to be the basis for penal responsibility impossible in populations subject to such selective punishment. Certain scientists argue that this disproves the notion of humans having a biological feeling of intentional transgressions deserving to be punished.[17][18][19]