Motivation and emotion/Book/2014/Punishment as a motivator

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Punishment as a motivator:
What motivates people to punish?

Overview[edit | edit source]

Understanding punishment better can help to improve one’s life [grammar?] by applying the knowledge present in this chapter either to personal behaviour or to other people’s behaviours. Most intellectuals agree that punishment is necessary in some form. However, there is disagreement when it comes to establishing the underlying reasons that make punishment acceptable and a reasonable response to social norm violations. In this chapter, the meaning of punishment will be extended beyond the usual negative outcomes such as classical punitive measures, physical pain, justice, retribution, and others. Punishment is viewed as an aversive event, regardless of aetiology, a consequence following a behaviour that makes it less likely for a person to repeat the behaviour in the future.

Example: Little Tommy touched the fire, and burnt his hand. Tommy is less likely to touch the fire in the future.

Carrot & Stick
Time for a beating
mixed signals
Motivation or Punishment (Mixed signals)

This chapter takes into consideration literature in the area of punishment and hopes to provide a detailed overview on punishment. A close look is taken into the general understanding of punishment: definitions, a brief history, theory, research, scenarios and an opportunity to stop and reflect. Particular interest is directed towards research attempting to determine what motivates ordinary people to assign punishments. Research discussing various motives that may drive the punitive intent are noted. An attempt is made to provide a deeper understanding on the process formed by ordinary people with the intent to use punishment. Much information is gathered and compiled in the hope of presenting objective insight on a topic that has been present within society since the dawn of civilisation. Punishment, in its various forms, is likely to have played a key role in shaping the dynamics of social interaction in many species — humans in particular (Seymour, 2007). Punishment seems to be closely knit within society, the justice system, the family, education system, and so on, and yet, it appears that the public knows very little. Culpability is usually a precursor to punishment, therefore not much thought is given as to why a person punishes[explain?]. Ultimately, the main use of punishment is to modify an undesired behaviour and reduce its occurrence in the future.

About punishment[edit | edit source]

What is punishment? – According to Reeve (2009), a punisher (also known as an aversive stimuli) reduces the probability of an undesired behaviour from occuring. According to the reinforcement theory, punishment weakens a behaviour.

Example: A child that does not complete the assigned homework, will be kept in class for after school work. The child is less likely to forget to do the homework in the future.

A layperson may consider various situations where punishment may serve as a motivator. Some such situations may be:

  • Punishment motivates people to do the right thing in a society e.g. not to break the law.
  • Punishment can be viewed as a way to restore balance in a situation where the balance was tipped due to unwanted behaviour (Carlsmith, Darley, & Robinson, 2002).
  • punishment may serve as a motivator to stick to a diet or weight loss programme (Premack’s principle of punishment).
  • Punishment, can cause stress, and stressors help get things done.

Stop and Reflect: Can you think of any example where punishment may serve as a motivator?

A malefactor punished

Punishers have been used for millennia in attempt to control undesired behaviour. The most controversial form of punishment is corporal punishment. Psychology offers a different approach to punishment compared to the traditional punitive power exercised by a person in authority. Psychologists study the use of punishment towards changing an operant behaviour and not towards a person.

What is motivation[edit | edit source]

Many chapters in this book have covered in detail the meaning of motivation[for example?]. Most people may argue that punishment is not a very effective motivator[factual?]. However, in order to be objective, the question must be raised for rewards too. Are rewards as effective a motivator as commonly claimed? In reality, both reward and punishment have a few things in common. Both are external results for a behaviour. The ultimate goal of both rewards and punishment is to manipulate behaviour. Both are done ‘’’to’’’ the person as opposed to ‘’’with’’’ the person e.g. do something and in return a reward/punishment will follow.

Many studies show that intrinsic motivation usually diminishes with the presence of extrinsic motivation, including rewards. There is ample research that has found that rewards do not necessarily lead to higher interest and better performance in a task. On the contrary, when the reward was higher performance and results worsened compared to no reward (e.g. doing it just for fun) or a small reward. Punishment is generally viewed in two contexts: (a) with reference to children, parenting and education (e.g. school), and (b) often attributed to justice and order (e.g. crime). Research provides some interesting information and evidence for a correlation between punishment and free will.

Punishment: Retributive and utilitarian[edit | edit source]

Giacomantonio & Pierro (2014), Carlsmith, Darley, & Robinson, (2002) and others state that the basis lies in the work of two philosophers, Kant and Bentham, and present two distinct motivations and justifications for the use of punishment: retributive and utilitarian. Moral harm is one of the key models of the retributive perspective for seeking an appropriate punishment, in line with the gravity of the offence committed. This is as per normative moral principles based on universal norms of reciprocity and fairness (Shariff et al., 2014). Retributive justice focuses on the harm inflicted by the offender and seeks to send a clear message directly to the offender and not to the public.

The utilitarian model decides on an appropriate punishment based on the violation of norms (i.e. what has the best social consequences as opposed to moral violation (retributive model)). A decision based on the utilitarian model is future focused and can draw conclusions based on a range of factors that could differ considerably from the retributive model (Giacomantonio & Pierro, 2014). One such example is that a utilitarian model, unlike the retributive model, might apply a greater punishment, disproportionate to the offence, in order to make a statement (Shariff et al., 2014). A reason for such a decision might be to discourage similar offences from occurring in the future. The focus is on society at large, and the aim is to send a clear message to an audience - the public.

Punishment and free will[edit | edit source]

Although most people believe in the existence of free will, science is inclined to argue otherwise and proposes a mechanistic structure for human behaviour (Shariff et al., 2014). With reference to punishment, research found that strong believers in free will tended to be more punitive (Krueger, Hoffman, Walter, & Grafman, 2014). This may be because there is an underlying sense of serving justice. However among “free will sceptics”, there is hesitation to serve justice. The reason behind this is, if one diminishes belief in free will, doubt enters the equation and the need arises to discuss whether a criminal had a choice when committing the crime i.e. the blame is diminished, and consequently so is the endorsement of punishment (Shariff et al., 2014). This could raise some confusion for the retributive model in particular because eye-for-an-eye justification for punishment cannot be endorsed. The utilitarian model would not be affected too much because the focus remains on the social consequences and less so on an individual’s interest.

Motivation to punish[edit | edit source]

There are two main reasons why people should be interested in the question behind what motivates punishment in ordinary people’s reasoning. Since it sounds complicated, let’s start by posing a few objective questions. Stop & Reflect:

1. What motivates people so much that there is such a strong need for punishment following a crime?

2. Sincerely, what does an individual hope to achieve by punishing a criminal?

The first question is a psychological one and makes reference to possibly the first and most important reason behind what people in society are seeking in punishment. The next reason concerns social policy and public compliance with criminal law (Carlsmith, Darley, & Robinson, 2002). It is worth noting that research suggests that an individual is more likely to comply voluntarily with the law when there is trust and faith in the system[factual?]. If there is a general perception that the system treats society fairly, as per personal intuitions about what is just, individuals will be less prone to seek justice alone[factual?]. Another reason why punishment is sought was suggested by Kruglanski et al., (2006). The study suggested that people need to punish the offender for cognitive closure. The human nature struggles to deal with ambiguity and confusion; hence closure is sought. Cognitive closure offers an answer to a situation that raises many questions.

Punishment motivators
  • Motivation towards a desired behaviour - gets things done.
  • Quickly suppress an undesired behaviour. Alternative interventions like extinction and reinforcement are not the best options as a lengthier process is involved in order to be effective. Punishment promptly conveys a message of disapproval such as suppressing a potentially dangerous behaviour.

e.g. – child jabbing at other children with a pointy pencil.

  • Opportunity to increase social behaviour.

e.g. - punishing a child by a time-out period might not necessarily teach alternative behaviours, however, in order to patch relationships the child may become more sociable.

  • To draw attention towards a specific area such as increasing attention to the environment.

e.g. - punishing a person for littering or vandalism.

  • Altruistic punishment robustly promotes cooperation among people.

Theories offering justifications for punishment[edit | edit source]

There is plenty of research and theories in philosophy offering justifications for punishment like Just Deserts Theory, Deterrence Theory, Incapacitation Theory, and others. In psychology, the deterrence theory is based on the utilitarian design and just deserts on the retributive model. These two models are the most commonly used approaches in punishment. Research in psychology has studied the affects of punishment on behaviour. In fact, punishment is used widely as a motivator to suppress target behaviours. Unfortunately, there has been very little attention directed towards the motivation of the person that assigns the punishment. Carlsmith, Darley and Robinson (2002) took a closer look at the psychological literature on punishment and found a complex picture. This article noted that even when indisputable evidence was provided to supporters of a “justification for punishment theory” (e.g. deterrence, just deserts, etc), on the ineffectiveness of the theory in subject, the attitude towards capital punishment did not change. Although participants in the study expressed support for the utilitarian model (deterrence) as a goal of punishment, the reported results were not consistent with this stated goal. The punishment assigned was instead consistent with the theory of deservingness, the retributive theory. These findings suggest that people justify punishment based on something other than deterrence i.e. nonutilitarian motives. In order words, it appears that people tend to attribute and pass judgement (blame) on a person for an undesirable behaviour to the most morally blameworthy of multiple factors (Carlsmith, Darley, & Robinson, 2002).

Example. Scenario: Bystander witnesses of a car accident are more likely to blame a driver with a few bottles of alcohol found on the back seat compared to a driver with a child seated at the back. Irrespective of whether the driver was under the influence of alcohol or was merely returning from the Bottle Shop during the incident, people are unlikely to consider other plausible factors contributing to the accident (such as, blind intersection, oil on the road, other driver)[factual?].

Punishment and moral outrage[edit | edit source]

The above example clearly portrays the influence of moral outrage and highlights a link between culpability and punishment to the morality of the action in subject (Salerno & Peter-Hagene, 2013). Moral outrage is an emotional response to an external behaviour (action or stimuli) usually coming from another person. Needless to say, the behaviour undermines moral principles and implies an element of outrageousness. Some studies have identified moral outrage as a critical part in the determination of punishment (Carlsmith et al., 2002; Salerno & Peter-Hagene, 2013). It has also been suggested that measuring levels of moral outrage offers good predictors for punitiveness and punitive intent[factual?][explain?]. Anger is of importance to punishment because retributive motives are made up of both affective and cognitive components[factual?].

The seriousness of the undesired behaviour does not seem to dictate the model or motivation of punishment especially since an ordinary person is easily persuadable and can easily modify opinions based on different kinds of incoming information[factual?]. People are sometimes oblivious to the possibility that social desirability and plausibility may be behind the actual reasons that lead to decision making[factual?]. In other words, the actual reasons behind a decision do not correspond to the constructed reasoning. A good example is presented in the study by Carlsmith et al. (2002) when asking about different motives for punishment, participants tend to agree with all reasons. Participants did not need to choose as all reasons were deemed acceptable, probably due to social desirability. The research covered in this chapter notes that the utilitarian model seems to overlap with the retributive model[explain?]. Therefore, future research may look into altering the utilitarian model and take into consideration the frequency of an undesired behaviour rather than the seriousness. The frequency can be punished accordingly until a decline in the undesired behaviour is observed.

It is hard to talk about punishment without eventually mentioning and including rewards.

Scenario: Economists believe that people are usually more motivated to avoid loss (in particular financial loss) than to make every effort for conditional benefits. A very good case in point is the Great Recession, which proved to be a great motivator in particular for businesses under scrutiny. Employees were (self) motivated to work harder because of the risk of losing a job. Economists report significant increases in productivity precisely during the Great Recession.

Little Albert Experiment.

In the above scenario, fear could be viewed as the punisher that motivates workers to work harder. Fear is commonly used in operant conditioning, a learning theory that is commonly used in research to teach animals to fear something or someone. Reinforcing and punishing stimulus is used in order to teach and manipulate towards a desired behaviour. This chapter presents a detailed overview of fear as a motivator. The chapter covers studies that explain how fear is actually a learned response to threats and situations (Olsson & Phelps (2004). The punishing stimulus in operant conditioning is used in order to teach something. Rewards and punishment are used to reinforce responses to specific stimulus. Punishments reduce responses just as rewards are used to strengthen responses (Weitan 2010). Operant conditioning provides insight into how fear is learned through experience. However the chapter noted that it is not always necessary to experience a stimulus like punishment in operant conditioning to learn fear. John B. Watson is best known for the experiment known as the ‘Little Albert experiment’. Watson displayed how fear can be learned through classical conditioning.

Additional theories of punishment[edit | edit source]

The Conditioned suppression theory[edit | edit source]

This theory is based on Skinner’s early work. The theory found that punishment does not weaken an undesired behaviour. Instead, it produces an emotional response which interferes with the occurrence of the behaviour (Powell, Honey, & Symbaluk, 2013). Example: when a child is scolded for “stealing” biscuits, the child becomes so upset (emotional response) that the biscuits are of no interest anymore and therefore refrains from “stealing” more biscuits.

The avoidance theory of punishment[edit | edit source]

This theory suggests that a condition of avoidance is instilled by punishing the target behaviour. Hence, the punished behaviour is avoided, but not the other behaviours. This theory too, suggests that the undesired behaviour is not weakened, since it is merely being substituted by avoidance. Example: Jane no longer teases her brother, Peter, after being scolded for doing so (Powell et al., 2013).

Premack’s principle[edit | edit source]

Premack's principle holds that a high-probability behaviour (HPB) can be used to reinforce a low-probability behaviour (LPB; Powell et al., 2013). The same principle could be applied by using the LPB to punish HPB, diminishing the occurrences of the HPB. Example: Premack’s principle – Running on a treadmill (LPB) leads to eating food (HPB) - applied to punishment – Eating food (HPB) leads to running on the treadmill (LPB), resulting in less likelihood to eat food. Unlike the previous two theories mentioned, Premack’s principle approaches punishment implicitly as the opposite response to reinforcement. If reinforcement strengthens behaviour, then punishment weakens behaviour. Premack’s principle of punishment offers a platform to use punishment as a motivator. Scenario 1: An area where Premack’s principle could be used is with dieting and weight loss. A programme can be organised for clients wishing to lose weight. The programme may include a running on the treadmill (LPB) each time the client gives in to temptation and eats junk food (HPB).

Scenario 2: The same theory can be applied to procrastination. A student may set a rule to read a chapter from the week’s readings (studying - LPB) each time time is wasted procrastinating (HPB).

This punishment procedure is called a contingent exercise. It is very useful for behaviour modification.

Conclusion[edit | edit source]

In conclusion, this chapter endeavoured to provide empirical information on punishment in the hope of offering more insight transferrable to everyday life. Punishment is a complex part of the human life and is influenced by many internal and external factors within humans and society in general. The Premack principle [explain?] probably offers the most easy and evident applications for punishment. However, the reader should find the influence of free will and emotion (in particularly anger or moral outrage) on punishment of particular interest too. While there has been a lot of studies on the use of punishment as a behaviour modifier, not much is known in the realm of why the need to punish. Additional areas worth considering in the future may be the neurobiology of punishment and the ethics of punishment[explain?]. This chapter brings together research that presents various contributing factors linking people’s emotions and cognition to the motivation that may drive the intent to use punishment.

Activity:[edit | edit source]

Stop a moment and reflect on an area in your life where this principle may be useful?

Come up with a reasonable plan to implement using Premack’s Principle of punishment as a motivator to change a target behaviour.

N.B. Effectiveness is key in order to continue using punishment as a motivator. The four main factors that influence effectiveness in punishment are: immediacy, contingency, establishing operations and the difference in individuals and the magnitude of the punishers being used. Establishing operations and abolishing operations influences effectiveness (Miltenberger, 2012). An establishing operation is an event or condition that makes the consequence more effective as a punisher, while an abolishing operation denotes a decrease in the effectiveness.

Quiz[edit | edit source]

What have we learned?


1 In punishment, a behaviour is followed by a consequence; as a result the behaviour is ________________________ likely to occur in the future.


2 A(n) _______________ is an event or condition that makes a consequence more effective as a punisher.

electric shock
establishing operation

3 Punishment is a process that ____________________ behaviour, and reinforcement is a process that _____________________behaviour?

changes, rewards
weakens, strengthens
strengthens, confuses
confuses, inspires

4 In John B. Watsons 'Little Albert Experiment' Albert learned to fear the white rat through what method?

Operant conditioning
Classical conditioning
Psuedo conditioning
Modern Conditioning

Did you know?[edit | edit source]

File:Neorobiology of punishment.jpg
Neurobiology of punishment

Septo-Hippocampal Circuit involves the integrated action of several limbic structures one of which is the hippocampus. The hippocampus ( uses memory to constantly compare incoming sensory information with expected events. Should the hippocampus be alerted to an unexpected situation, the septo-hippocampal circuit is activated. In an event where punishment is perceived, the hippocampus is alerted to activate what is called anxiety-ridden behavioural inhibition, which releases endorphins to cope and quieten down the anxiety mode (Reeve, 2009).

References[edit | edit source]

Carlsmith, K. M., Darley, J. M., & Robinson, P. H. (2002). Why do we punish?: Deterrence and just deserts as motives for punishment. Journal Of Personality And Social Psychology, 83(2), 284-299. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.83.2.284

Clark, C. J., Luguri, J. B., Ditto, P. H., Knobe, J., Shariff, A. F., & Baumeister, R. F. (2014). Free to punish: A motivated account of free will belief. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 106(4), 501-513. doi:10.1037/a0035880

Giacomantonio, M., & Pierro, A. (2014). Individual Differences Underlying Punishment Motivation: The Role of Need for Cognitive Closure. Social Psychology, doi:10.1027/1864-9335/a000211

Krueger, F., Hoffman, M., Walter, H., & Grafman, J. (2014). An fMRI investigation of the effects of belief in free will on third-party punishment. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 9(8), 1143-1149. doi:10.1093/scan/nst092

Kruglanski, A. W., Pierro, A., Mannetti, L., & De Grada, E. (2006). Groups as epistemic providers: need for closure and the unfolding of group-centrism. Psychological Review, 113, 84–100.

Lustenberger, D. M. (2010). Exploring the Effects of Ostracism on Performance and Intrinsic Motivation. Human Performance, 23(4), 283-304.

Matsumoto M, & Hikosaka O. (2009). Representation of negative motivational value in the primate lateral habenula. Nature Neuroscience 12(1):77-84.

Miltenberger, R. (2012). Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures (5 ed.). Cengage Learning.

Olsson, A., Phelps, E. (2004). Learned fear of “unseen” faces after Pavlovian, observational, and instructed fear. Journal of Psychological Science, pp. 338-341

Powell, R.A., Honey, P.L., & Symbaluk, D.G. (2013). Introduction to Learning and Behavior. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Reeve, J. (2009). Understanding Motivation and Emotion (5 ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Salerno, J. M., & Peter-Hagene, L. C. (2013). The interactive effect of anger and disgust on moral outrage and judgments. Psychological Science, 24(10), 2069-2078.

Seymour, B. R. (2007). The neurobiology of punishment. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 8(4), 300-312.

Shariff, A. F., Greene, J. D., Karremans, J. C., Luguri, J. B., Clark, C. J., Schooler, J. W., . . . Vohs, K. D. (2014). Free Will and Punishment: A Mechanistic View of Human Nature Reduces Retribution. Psychological Science. doi:10.1177/0956797614534693

Weitan, W. (2010). Psychology Themes and Variations. (8th Ed.). Belmont: Wadswoth

External links[edit | edit source]