We punish. Coaches yell and curse at players. Teachers impose penalties for late assignments and late students, Parents shun, yell, belittle, insult and physically assault their children. Police officers make traffic stops, give tickets and arrest people. Judges impose fines, assign to work details, incarcerate and sentence inmates to death. Suspected traitors, terrorists and spies are drugged, waterboarded and abused.
We expect punishment to occur. A lot of punishment is going on. We are quite aware of it. It is a norm of life. We are not surprised to see a child being pulled by the arm. We may be offended but are not astonished to hear ethnic slurs. We are not amazed we have to pay late fees, parking fines or speeding tickets. We don’t like it but we expect life to include punishment.
In fact, we want more of it. We are upset when criminals “get off.” We feel like something should be done. We bad things happen we want someone to be punished. We want to send people to jail, usually without any personal knowledge of what jail is like. We want people put to death for heinous crimes. We celebrities, politicians and Wall Street to pay for their deeds.
We assume punishment is natural. It is true that part of our flight-or-flight systems is the quick and automatic reaction of our emotional system. When attacked, we want to counterattack. When frustrated, we become aggressive. When insulted, we want our critics to be punished. Punishing might be a part of our natural tendency. All primates beat their chests or make themselves look bigger when afraid. But we can overcome our initial wiring and reprogram ourselves to act more compassionately.
We assume punishment is right. It is retribution or retaliation for evil done. The extreme version is that we all deserve to die. We are horrible people, a fallen race or guilty sinners. Compared to what we deserve, punishment is easy. But does a baby deserve punishment? What is the proper retribution for not knowing how to walk? If punishment is right, surely it must be within certain constraints.
We assume punishment is fair. It is an eye for an eye. But in the Hebrew story of Cain killing Abel, Cain argues that death is too harsh of a penalty and God commutes the sentence to banishment. Cain must live with what he has done and no is allowed to kill him. God apparently puts a visible mark on him (the mark of Cain) to make sure Cain will be safe. To be fair, punishment must be proportional. What is the proportional response to a crying child? Is making them cry more actually the answer?
We assume punishment good for you. Not good for us but certainly good for you. Punishment, we assert, if for rehabilitation and correction. Punishment will help you grow up to be a good person. If you don’t punish children, they will never learn to behave properly. Stated as an if-then question, this premise should be testable. And it has been, repeatedly. There is no empirical evidence that punishment makes us good. Indeed, there is a ton of empirical evidence that punishment is bad for you. It might be worth the risk to go against the evidence of emotional problems caused by punishment, if it work effectively.
We assume punishment is effective. At the extremes, punishment is highly effective. There is zero percent chance that an inmate who is executed they will commit another crime. It is 100% effective. It doesn’t teach the person anything. Therein lies the issue: to measure effectiveness, the goal must be clear.
If the goal is to change a person’s character, heart or path in life, punishment is not effective. It doesn’t act a deterrent to crime because people aren’t thinking clearly when they commit a crime. Children don’t think clearly because their brains are not fully formed. Adults don’t think logically because their emotions get the best of them. That’s why you come home from shopping with things you didn’t indent to buy.
If the goal is to stop a behavior, B.F. Skinner has something to say on the topic. Skinner notes that punishment can temporarily suppress a behavior but it has bad side effects. He and tons of research conclude that punishment is not a good long-term solution.
Skinner proposes that there are two types of punishment, positive and negative. Positive punishment lowers the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring by the giving of something. You might give a yell, an insult, a slap, a spanking or an electric shock. Positive doesn’t mean pleasant. Positive indicates that something has been given or added to the situation.
Negative punishment also decreases the likelihood that a response will occur. Negative, in this sense, is to take something away. Negative punishment examples include time out, grounding, taking away privileges and shunning.
Problems With Punishment
Punishment, like reinforcement, has a broad impact. Punishment doesn’t change one behavior; it impacts all of the behaviors being displayed. If telephone answering is punished, the whole operant in punishing. You can’t punish unhappy-telephone-answering behavior. You will be less likely to answer the phone, regardless whether you’re happy, sad, motivated or unmotivated. All behaviors are punished at the same time.
As a broad tool, learners may not understand which operant behavior is being punished. All behaviors are hit at the same time. If you’ve ever seen a dog cower, you notice that all behavior is shut down. The learner can’t be sure what you are mad about.
Punishment may undo existing rewards for a behavior. Punishment impacts the good and the bad. Punishing one behavior may unintentionally disrupt a positive behavior.
The effects of punishment are temporary. You know from your own experience that you slow when you see a police car but after you’re beyond it, you go back to your previous speed. Punishment only works when the punisher is present. It blocks behavior. It doesn’t eliminate it.
Punishment doesn’t make long-term changes in positive behavior. Stopping old behaviors is not the same as learning new ones. Learning requires the acquisition of good behaviors, not just eliminating the bad ones. Punishment isn’t learning.
In addition to being vague and ineffective, punishment. Punishment has negative side effects. Students may come to fear the teacher, rather than learn an association between the action and punishment. You might not want to be around the punisher.
Punishment is often delivered in anger. This jeopardizes the premise of fairness. When anger, we do not distribute justice evenly. We do not act rationally.
Punishment models inappropriate behaviors. At its worst, punishment models aggressive. Punitive aggression may lead to future aggression because it teaches us to be a punisher. At its best, punishment teaches us to be manipulative. It becomes a statement of who is in change. Punishment is a power play.
Punishment makes it no fun to be around you. Students may avoid the teacher. Children may distance their parents. People who are illegal residents are often avoid becoming involved in their community because they fear the local police. Punishing makes you scary.
Punishment often happens after a behavior stops. Your daughter destroys your son’s Lego masterpiece. The deed has already been done. Where does punishment fit here? What is the appropriate course?
First, it is important to recognize that punishment isn’t the only option. You could try mediation, negotiation and bartering. Instead of punishing the destroyer, what reward could be given for creators. If the destroyer converts to a creator, what benefits could she and her bother (I mean, brother) receive.
Second, decisions don’t have to be made instantly. The family can take its time to figure out what to do.
Third, your viewpoint matters. Is this a crime that needs to be punished, an accident that needs compassion or a problem-solving opportunity? It is not easy to give up our primate tendencies but it is an option.