The paradox of persisting self-punitive behavior

Judson S. Brown, Christopher L. Cunningham

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Scopus citations


The paradox presented by the "masochist" who persists in behaviors that are followed contingently by seemingly aversive consequences is analyzed. Prototypical data from infra-human experiments are evaluated for their bearing on two theories of self-punitive actions, one based on traditional stimulus-response principles, the other on cognitive assumptions. Although the label "self-punitive" is widely used, a question remains as to whether animals that react so as to bring about so-called noxious outcomes are properly to be described as "punishing themselves." In an attempt to resolve this question, two major conceptions of punishment are evaluated as they apply to self-punitive studies. Neither conception is deemed adequate because of a lack of criteria for determining which events are aversive. A search for criteria of aversiveness eventuates in a completely relativistic view in which noxiousness and attractiveness are judged to be relational rather than absolute properties of events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)343-354
Number of pages12
JournalNeuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews
Issue number3
StatePublished - 1981
Externally publishedYes


  • Aversive stimulation
  • Cognitive discrimination
  • Fear
  • Masochism
  • Punishment
  • Rats
  • Self-punitive behavior
  • Shock escape

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


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