For Bullying, Punishment Doesn’t Work: The Power of Behavioral Science and Extinction

Bullying is a pervasive issue that affects individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Traditional approaches to dealing with bullying often revolve around punishment, hoping that by penalizing the aggressor, the behavior will stop. However, the field of behavioral science has shed light on a more effective and compassionate alternative – the technique of extinguishing unwanted behavior. In this blog post, we will explore how negative reinforcement is still reinforcement and why punishment is not the solution to bullying. Instead, we’ll delve into the power of behavioral science and how employing extinction can create a safer and more positive environment for everyone involved.

Negative Reinforcement: The Reinforcing Loop

It is important to remember that negative reinforcement is still reinforcement. In the context of bullying, punishment may seem like a deterrent, but it inadvertently reinforces the cycle of aggression. For instance, if a bully faces consequences such as detention or suspension, they may feel a sense of power and control over their victims, reinforcing their aggressive behavior. They may feel justified in what they are doing.

Furthermore, when negative reinforcement is employed, it can escalate the situation. The bully might retaliate against their victim for “getting them into trouble,” leading to a never-ending cycle of aggression and punishment. This approach fails to address the root cause of the behavior and does little to create a positive learning environment.

The Power of Extinction: Breaking the Cycle

Extinction is a behavioral science technique that focuses on withholding reinforcement for a particular behavior, leading to a reduction or elimination of that behavior over time. Instead of punishment, which reinforces negative behavior, extinction offers a more proactive and compassionate way of addressing bullying.

When a bullying behavior is not reinforced or rewarded, the motivation for the bully diminishes. They no longer gain the sense of power and control they seek, leading them to question the effectiveness of their actions. Over time, the unwanted behavior fades away as it ceases to provide any benefit for the bully.

Issuing a Delta and Redirecting: A Positive Approach

In the context of behavioral science, a “delta” refers to providing a signal that the unwanted behavior isn’t working. This is usually then coupled with redirection to more pro-social behavior that is rewarded. Rather than focusing solely on punishment or even ignoring the bullying behavior, a delta can help interrupt the behavior and provide opportunity to redirect the bully’s actions towards more constructive interactions.

For example, in response to a bully who is calling people names, a target can respond by saying something neutral which indicates they aren’t bothered by the name calling and that whatever the bully was hoping they would do (like cry) – they aren’t going to do. The delta is a signal that whatever reward the bully was hoping for, they will not get. This is not the same as punishment, it’s the absence of reward.

The Bully Vaccine Project: Empowering Positive Change

If you’re interested in learning more about the power of behavioral science in combating bullying, look no further than the Bully Vaccine Project. This valuable resource offers insights, tools, and strategies to effectively address and prevent bullying in various settings.

By leveraging the principles of behavioral science, the Bully Vaccine Project empowers individuals to promote positive change within their communities. From educators and parents to students and community leaders, everyone can contribute to creating a safe and respectful environment where bullying is less likely to thrive.


Bullying is a complex and deeply troubling issue that requires a thoughtful and effective approach. Punishment only perpetuates the cycle of aggression, reinforcing negative behavior patterns. By embracing the principles of behavioral science, particularly the technique of extinction and issuing deltas, we can pave the way for a more compassionate and lasting solution to bullying.

To effect real change, it’s crucial to educate ourselves and others about the power of behavioral science in addressing bullying. Take advantage of the free resources offered by the Bully Vaccine Project to play a part in creating a world where kindness and empathy prevail over cruelty and aggression. Together, we can build a brighter future for all.