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Why do we punish people?

in Media Psychology by

During the lead up to the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran there was public outcry. In one camp we had the calls for mercy. The punishment did not fit the crime.In another camp was the harsh view that they should have simply known better. And, of course, there was a third camp, people who could see both sides.

Perhaps it’s too obvious but how often do we stop and wonder why we punish people?

The motivation to punish is well ingrained from a young age. Parents instinctively use two broad approaches to modify their child’s behaviour. They can reward them for good behaviour or punish them for bad.According to a long line of research, it is believed that children go on to develop stable mental guides from their parents which help them to navigate through life.

When individuals do the wrong thing they eventually learn to punish themselves through emotions such as guilt and anxiety.

When an individual succeeds, he or she learns to reward themself with feelings of happiness and satisfaction. The emotional reactions are like surrogate parental figures who are always with you.

We also learn to instinctively apply these surrogate figures to others.

In our relationships we learn to punish others who have wronged us. In workplaces we learn to develop strict protocols and disciplinary actions for underperforming employees. We reinforce the same strategies with our children.

We also punish entire civilisations. After all, what was the Berlin Wall for if not a massive slap from a parental figure?

Of course, we also learn to reward others too. We embrace people for being kind and supportive. We give employees bonuses for good performance and we also praise our children for good behaviour.

If it was that simple, however, all we would have to do is reinforce good behaviour and punish bad.

But as we all know from experience it doesn’t seem to work that way.

Rewarding children with incentives like money, for example, has been paradoxically shown to lower their motivation to continue doing the task, called the overjustification effect.

Bonuses for employees can lead to unethical behaviour to claim this desirable reward.

Even capital punishment has not put a stop to drug smuggling.

Although punishment will deter many individuals, research also shows that there’s more to it than just deterrence. We also do it because we value retribution even if there’s no actual effect on deterring future behaviour.

The problem with this simplistic ‘carrot and stick’ approach is that we often don’t have a real idea of what we are truly rewarding or deterring. We don’t always stop to understand what truly motivates people.

When we scold a child for poor behaviour, we might be reinforcing their need for attention. When employees are reprimanded for breaching rules to get the job done faster, we may unintentionally be punishing them for coming up with new ideas.

When money is provided for hard work, we may be reinforcing the idea that the almighty dollar is more important than the value of the work itself.

What will the punishment of Chan and Sukumaran provide? Will it deter future drug smuggling? Will it reinforce a society’s appetite for retribution?

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