We are a culture that believes in punishment. Not just for the criminal or the misbehaving child, but in almost every interaction we have, from our intimate partners to our global enemies and friends.
We don’t just see punishment as a deterrent. We think punishment works to change another’s behavior. Just look around. Take a closer look at how you approach a difficult conversation. We all do it. We use punishment all of the time. We don’t even think about it.
Punishment is a completely ineffective way to change anyone’s behavior.
Punishment simply breeds punishment-avoidance — and what we resist persists.
In spite of ongoing and frequent evidence to the contrary, Americans rely on punishment to effect positive change in all areas of our lives. From our child-rearing practices to our romantic partnerships, our criminal justice system to our foreign policy, we believe that sufficient punishment will result in the child, partner, criminal or government changing his behavior.
We also believe that if we punish ourselves enough we can change our own behavior. Who among us has not castigated ourselves for doing something embarrassing or felt deep shame for events that were not even our fault?
I believe that we use punishing methods of communication in all of our relationships without even realizing what we are doing. Further, I believe that using shaping and positive reinforcement to change others’ behavior as well as our own is far more effective and, as a bonus, leads to a more congenial social and family life.
Before proceeding I should clarify what I mean by punishment, shaping and positive reinforcement. In behaviorist terms, punishment is any aversive stimulus applied in order to stop an undesirable behavior. It does not teach the recipient what it is the punisher wants done; it only conveys what behavior he wants stopped. Shaping is rewarding the inkling of the desired behavior in a stepwise manner, over time, until the desired behavior is reached. Positive reinforcement is simply rewarding the subject when the desired behavior is performed, thus increasing the probability that the behavior will occur again.
For example, my 13-year-old daughter used to be the biggest slob in our family. She wasn’t unhygienic; she simply left piles of projects behind her like Pigpen’s dust trails. I’m not talking about just her bedroom, but in every room of the house.
This behavior drove me crazy. Before I began studying behaviorist therapy my typical reaction went something like this: “Come here this instant! How many times do I have to tell you to pick up after yourself?” accompanied by various snarls and exasperated huffing.
My yelling was training my daughter to stop whatever it was she was doing, whether she was playing with her pet rat or doing her homework. The piles were from earlier projects. My approach got a quick response but she continued to leave piles. It seemed that the only way to get her to clean up after herself was for me to come unglued.
My example is very typical. We yell at our children; we rant at our spouses. We continually point out what it is our loved ones are doing wrong. We seldom, if ever, communicate to them what they are doing right.
Punishment does not teach a new, more desired behavior. It teaches us to do whatever it takes to avoid further punishment. So, we might clean the living room because that gets the yelling to stop in that moment, but we are seldom motivated to do it again without further yelling. We believe that punishment works to change behavior despite repeated evidence to the contrary.
When it dawned on me that the theories I was studying might work in actual practice, I decided to experiment at home. I began to look for opportunities to catch my daughter picking up after herself, even just a little. When she managed to get her dirty clothes into the hamper rather than on the floor next to it, I thanked her. When she picked up one of her five piles, I praised her without pointing out her failure to get the other four.
You could argue that I shouldn’t have to praise her for such obvious things. “You shouldn’t have to hold her hand every step of the way!” you might say. I ask you, would you rather be right or would you rather be effective? Would you rather insist that she’s a big girl and continue yelling or would you rather see her behavior change?
Within about a week my shaping program began to bear fruit. Sadie’s piles began to disappear from around the house. I continued to praise her efforts. From time to time she’ll slip up. She leaves a pile or two in the living room or my bedroom and I point it out. However, the yelling is no longer necessary. It only takes a gentle reminder to get her back on track. I have found this approach to be equally effective with her brothers.
I have been a practicing marriage and family therapist for 23 years. I discovered behaviorism just five years ago. It has profoundly changed not only my approach to therapy but my home life as well. Our family life is much quieter and more peaceful than it was just two years ago. Our communication has improved and we actually enjoy each other’s company.
All of us are in some kind of relationship, whether that is with a child, a spouse or a parent, a boss or an employee — even with ourselves. I would urge everyone to learn more about positive reinforcement and behavior change. It could change your life.