I wonder if punishment is effective in changing the behavior of individuals or societies. By punishment I mean more that physical pain. Withholding love, possessions, freedom or social access are all forms of punishment. The idea of punishment is deeply ingrained in many cultures and the major religions. So we have been punishing people for their misbehaviors for thousands of years. How has that worked out?
We still have the same bad behavior we have always had at every level of human organization, It is clear to me that different personalities respond to punishment differently. Those who are fearful or desperate for love or acceptance are more likely to respond to punishment with the change in behavior which is demanded. This can result in an individual who believes that acceptance and love can only come through obedience. At the other end of the spectrum is the individual who, when punished, says to him/herself, “I’ll get you for that.” More than one four year old has waited until he/she was big enough to get even. These responses to punishment can be seen in family life, work organizations, government and nations. A common result of punishment is revenge. Open or mandatory revenge isn’t as common in the American culture as it is in Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures. In those cultures, personal and family honor demands that one take revenge for offences.
Damaging family or personal honor can be viewed as a punishment and that must be addressed. In this country revenge is more subtle and in the form of paybacks. Again, personality is operative. Individuals with strong or aggressive personalities will defy, confront or directly make their payback. Those with more passive, beaten down personalities do their payback passive-aggressively by failing to do things that are promised or neglecting or forgetting duties which will cost the punisher. So when a young child spills his milk and the parent punishes, is this revenge on the parent’s part for having to clean up the mess or is it an attempt to teach the child that spilling milk isn’t a good thing? If the punishment is too harsh, the child may quit drinking milk out of fear of making a mistake. The government at all levels punishes lawbreakers, by fines, imprisonment and deprivation of rights. Is this effective in changing behavior to law abiding? Not very much. The number of repeat offenders is high.
There are a large number of people in prison who violate the law by behavior inside the prison or through contacts outside. I read in the paper almost every day of multiple DUI offenders being arrested for another offense. If the intent of the law is to teach the citizenry obey the law, it is not working very well. If the intent of the law is to get revenge on law breakers, it is more successful. I do agree that locking people up keeps them from breaking the law and protects the public from them for the most part. Another response to punishment is avoidance.
These people learn to stay away from the punisher or become so sneaky that they are never caught. This is true in family and social life. “If Dad insists on punishing me, I can leave home and never come near him again, or maybe visit Mom when Dad’s at work.” How many teens run away from home and never have contact with their family? If your church attempts to punish you, leave and have nothing to do with them and continue your behavior. What have either accomplished? From my point of view, punishment is not effective to get people to change their behavior. It will get the offender’s attention. At that point a wide variety of approaches may be applied ranging from alcohol and drug treatment to building self-esteem or learning socialization and empathy.
Sometimes teaching offenders to love and accept love will do the trick. For mental health reasons some people can never be allowed to be free in public. Some personality disorders carry the threat of violence and death to those near them, and they are not likely to change. To get a peaceful and civil society punishment must take a minor role, if any, from early childhood on. It is much better to understand why you shouldn’t spill your milk other than you will be spanked for it.