Applying Operant Learning to the Stay-Leave Decision in Domestic Violence

Katie Beth Miller, Emily Lund, Jeffrey Weatherly


Research on domestic violence has identified many factors behind an abused woman’s decision to stay in, rather than leave, the relationship, including economic concerns, psychological issues, and social consequences from society and the woman’s family and friends. The current article expands on Long and McNamara’s (1989) and Bell and Naugle’s (2005) discussions of how operant learning principles may contribute to the stay-leave decision. Human and non-human animal studies concerning the reduced effectiveness of punishment and increased effectiveness of reinforcement are discussed herein as they apply to domestic violence. Specifically, the dynamics of domestic violence increase the effectiveness of reinforcement within the relationship, decrease the effectiveness of punishment for staying in the relationship, and punish the alternative behavior of leaving the relationship. These factors combine to promote the woman staying in the relationship. Suggestions are made for modifying contingencies and a woman’s behavior that could increase the likelihood she would choose to leave a batterer.


domestic violence, behaviorism, operant learning, stay-leave decision

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Published by the University of Illinois at Chicago Library

And Behaviorists for Social Responsibility