The Fallacy of Punishment: Reshaping Behavior
A game was developed with the intent of studying human behavior as it relates to the concept of punishment, and a new study employing this game finds punishment to be surprisingly ineffective as a tool for fostering cooperation between players. It suggests that known methods for shaping human behavior may not be effective in general; nevertheless, the odds that punishment would be used less even if this became common knowledge seem slim in light of another study illustrating a sort of animalistic fascination with the concept — exemplified in both human beings and monkeys. This merits the question: how can parents and authority figures help young adults make better decisions?
Cooperation is the cornerstone of human civilization — collective inhabitance of societies protected by the strength of numbers of people in favor of similar ideas of what society should and shouldn’t allow. It’s necessitated by the law of nature discussed in the 2nd Treatise of Civil Government, written by John Locke in 1689 — one of the works that informed the creation of the Declaration of Independence penned by founding fathers of the United States nearly a century later. In essence, people are born with inalienable rights like the right to live or the right to own things. These freedoms, however, cannot infringe upon the freedoms of other human beings who share the same rights, so owning something only works when someone else doesn’t also claim ownership.
A person could decide to expand his or her own rights by owning what someone else has already claimed, and if it is not defended adequately, nothing can be done about it on an individual level. Societies, therefore, are necessitated by peoples banding together and referring to that as theft, declaring it illegal. Punishment comes into play as a means of enforcing the many such rules of coexistence that constitute civilization because it is intended as a means to correct deviant behavior. Marko Jusup led a team of researchers at Hokkaido University in Japan in a study that challenged this theoretical view of punishment, however. Jusup’s team collaborated with Zhen Wang and another team of scientists based in China at Northwestern Polytechnical University in devising a “social dilemma experiment.”
The researchers investigated using a variant of a game commonly used as a social study tool —“prisoner’s dilemma.” Three trial groups of 225 Chinese students in total played 50 rounds a piece. In one group, each student played two opponents, and the two opponents changed each round. They chose to either “cooperate” or “defect”; no points were gained if the student chose to defect and the two opponents also chose the same whereas four points were awarded to the student if all three players chose to cooperate. If the student defected when the two opponents both cooperated, the student received eight points.
The second group played similarly, but the two opponents weren’t cycled out for new opponents after each round; rather, the opponents remained the same throughout all 50 rounds. This allowed the players in the second group to learn each other’s tendencies, which informed how they played. The third group also didn’t cycle any players in and out from round to round, but they had an entirely new option available to them that players in the other two groups didn’t have: “punish.” If a player elected to punish someone, it resulted in a minor reduction of points for the punisher and a major point reduction for the punishee(s).
The research team expected to see evidence that cooperation was a natural occurrence born of a yearning to avoid consequence and/or to earn points. It seemed likely that the most cooperation would be observed in the third group, too, because the prospect of punishment would make cooperation all the more requisite. The surprising results, though, showed that the level of cooperation (37 percent) was not improved by the introduction of punishment. The static group actually saw greater gains among players, and though there was less defection in the trial group (playing with punishment), some players swapped defection for punishment.
“While the implied message when punishing someone is ‘I want you to be cooperative,’ the immediate effect is more consistent with the message ‘I want to hurt you,’” according to the published study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Punishment, therefore, was found to be more demoralizing than anything else. Punished players lost considerable portions of their total payoff in very little time at all, and this sometimes led to the abandonment of strategy spurred by a loss of interest in the game. Punishment was also observed as assuaging any incentive to prioritize cooperation over competition.
A study published this month in Nature Human Behavior, in fact, takes this a step further and suggests that punishment works in the desired way more often for those who are not being punished than it does for those who are. “When misfortune befalls another, humans may feel distress, leading to a motivation to escape,” according to the Nature Human Behavior study conducted by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany. “When such misfortune is perceived as justified, however, it may be experienced as rewarding and lead to motivation to witness the misfortune. We explored when in human[s] … such a motivation emerges and whether the motivation is shared by chimpanzees.”
Comparing six-year-old children to chimps, the team found this to be a consistent observation. The data shows that punishment is perceived by the witness in a way that makes them feel as though they’re already ahead, motivating them to capitalize on their good standing, yet it often robs the punished individual of the same motivation. This makes it difficult to determine how best to reshape behavior. A third study conducted by psychology professor Seth Pollak at the University of Wisconsin-Madison submits that adolescents and young adults make bad decisions because their ability to assess risk is impaired by experiencing stress early in life. The study found that the threat of punishment was highly unlikely to fix this problem.
“We would give [the 50 young-adult participants around age 20 in the study] clues as to outcomes,” Pollak explained, “such as ‘When you see this shape, you’re at risk of losing $5.’” He scanned participants’ brains while they engaged in the experimental activities. Participants who had already been established as those with less stressful childhood experiences heeded clues more often and gambled shrewdly, yet the opposite was the case of those who had experienced severe trauma in childhood. “It makes sense,” according to Pollak. “If you didn’t pay attention to the cues indicating that you’re about to lose, you’re more surprised and then upset when you do [lose].” This also speaks volumes about the ramifications of poverty as it relates to the inordinate difficulty of making the right choices to become successful later in life.