Five Pitfalls of Punishment

The psychology definition of the week at is punishment. As it so happens, I’ve been thinking a bit about punishment myself lately. Several events at home reminded me why we teach psychology students that punishment isn’t an effective way to control behavior.

Here’s what I mean.

1. A lot of punishment models angry, aggressive behavior and may implicitly teach kids (or critters) that it’s okay to lash out and attack when they’re feeling frustrated. Yelling models yelling. Hitting tends to beget more hitting. Physical punishment in childhood is also related to adult criminality (Strauss, 1991). Ignoring bad behavior may do the trick, but it can also teach kids to tune out when they’re not happy with others. Not good if your goal is to teach respectful social communication skills.

2. Punishment has to be lightning fast and undeniably linked to the target behavior or people don’t associate the bad behavior with the feared consequences. By the time you (or I) find the dog pee on the playroom floor, the dog doesn’t remember doing it. Even rubbing his nose in the evidence isn’t likely to reinforce the connection between his behavior and yours (saying ‘bad dog’; swatting him with a newspaper; stringing him up by the scruff of his neck). Delayed punishment only teaches people (or puppies) to fear punishment, it doesn’t cause them to change their behavior.

3. Punishment highlights “what not to do” and leaves open the question of how to behave better next time. Imagine an episode of “What Not to Wear” in which Stacy and Clinton humiliate their to-be-reformed fashion flop, berating her for wearing rainbow-striped gauchos with an oversized ten-year-old Chicago Bulls sweatshirt and worn-out combat boots. I know, they do that on the show. But what if that’s where it ended? No one would know how to do any better, and they’d probably respond to their public humiliation by trying harder, not dressing smarter. Remember that next time you tell your kid or your coworker what not to do.

4. Punishment is in the eye of the beholder, and it can be difficult to know ahead of time how a supposed punisher will impact a person’s outlook. What you intend as punishment may (paradoxically) reinforce the behavior it was supposed to disrupt. If your child drags his feet and causes a fuss about getting out of the house before swimming lessons and you punish him by keeping him home from a playdate, you might inadvertently give him exactly what he wanted (a little more down time at home). The same is true for time out. When an employee does a poor job on the Powerpoint slides for this week’s staff meeting and you punish her by assigning the job to her colleague, she may breathe a sigh of satisfaction.

5. Punishment motivates secrecy and deceit instead of behavior change. If you rely on punishment for parenting or people-management problems, you’ll find that your subjects get better and better at hiding their misbehavior to avoid punishment. They may or may not internalize the reasons their behavior is undesirable, but they’ll know for sure that letting you in on it doesn’t work out well. To cultivate  more honest and satisfying relationships, keep punishment to an absolute minimum. Otherwise, you risk a rift between what you see (and hear) and what’s really happening in others’ lives.

Have you experienced these pitfalls of punishment? How so?

Image credit: CHILD PUNISHMENT by Ia64




One Response to Five Pitfalls of Punishment

  1. afriendtoyourself says:

    really awesome post. hits the mark. thank u.
    have read through about 4 of your others and love your writing and content. keep on.

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