Mind Matters: Punishment

You know that Australian schools don't smack pupils anymore. As years pass, fewer and fewer parents smack their children.

I was never punished at all as a child, except that my mother tried to pinch me sometimes. She had arthritis, so the pinches never hurt. Parents nowadays tend to use mild punishments like brief time-out from fun. I used this method effectively a few times with my children.

I will take a step away from even mild punishment and tell you what I say to my psychology students. Punishment in any form, no matter how mild, is best avoided, except as a last resort. Why? Because of the side-effects. Side-effects tend to occur whether the punishment is delivered by a parent, an employer, or the government.

For one thing, punishment can harm the relationship between the punisher and the punished person, especially if the punished person feels unfairly treated. In truth, almost all punished individuals feel mistreated.

Another problem: behaviour tends to be reciprocated, for good or ill, so the punished individual may seek revenge. A child may not be able to do much harm. An adult can.

Also, the punished person may become demoralised. Then the child or employee may not develop and may not contribute beyond the bare minimum.

Yet another problem: A person may learn from punishment what not to do but not what to do. So punishment may be repeated time and again. A sign that punishment is not working is that the same person is getting punished repeatedly.

Sometimes a punished individual decides that the main goal is not to get caught. Punishment may thus help make the punished person into a liar or a sneak. Punishing another person sets a model of controlling others through punishment. Parents face a new problem if their child starts punishing smaller children to get his or her way.

Side-effects of punishment can also extend to the punisher. Punishing another individual can lower the mood of the punisher through feelings of disquiet or guilt. When my employer put me into punishment proceedings, the designated punishers seemed distressed from the start.

Are there options to punishment for dealing with undesirable behaviour? Yes. The place to start is by explaining to the person what he or she did wrong and what the better behaviour would be. Modelling the better behaviour could help, along with rewarding it.

John Malouff is an Associate Professor at the School of Behavioural, Cognitive and Social Sciences, University of New England.