Punishment is administering something hurtful immediately following an unwanted behavior so it will stop. We all understand how it works...and it works effectively if the punishment is immediate, severe enough and administered consistently. Aversive control of others permeates our culture: parents yell at and spank children, society fines and imprisons law-breakers, schools give low grades and fail students, employers threaten to fire workers, religions damn us for sinning, governments go to war to kill others. Yet, it is a procedure so fraught with difficulties and unpredictable consequences that many people, including psychologists, think punishment should not be used with others at all. Punishment may arouse fear and anger; it doesn't teach any improved behavior and it may only suppress some behavior while the punisher is watching.
However, punishment can stop certain behaviors. Even watching someone else be punished can have a powerful impact on our behavior in the same situation for a long time. The questions are: can self-punishment have a powerful influence on our own behavior? Does self-administered punishment have bad consequences too? Surely not the same feelings of fear and unfairness as when someone else is punishing us. Unfortunately, science doesn't know yet what goes on in our head in terms of attributions, self-instructions, and self-esteem when we self-punish? Nor do we know the emotional or behavioral consequences of self-punishment.
Just as punishment of others is a common, "natural" response to a hurt or insult, self-criticism and self-directed anger is a common response to failure in some people. Just as psychologists don't know, yet, the consequences of venting our anger caused by others, we don't know if venting anger against ourselves is helpful or not. Clearly, some great athletes and scholars are highly self-critical if they make a mistake, but we don't know if that contributed to their greatness or detracted from it. Prolonged self-hatred is extremely harmful, but what about temporary and specific self-criticism? Does self-censure have the same effects on our behavior as self-punishment? We don't know but we know many people are self-critical (in the extreme they become depressed). For now, each of us has to find out for ourselves when self-hurt--physical and emotional--is harmful and when is it helpful? (Actually, we probably adopt or reject this technique early in childhood sans scientific data.)
Purposes: Please note that this method deals only with self -punishment.
- To reduce the tendency to behave in a certain way, usually an unwanted habit or emotion or thought.
When the unwanted response is so dominant or strong that the desired behavior doesn't have a chance, you may need to punish and thereby weaken the unwanted response so the desired behavior can develop.
STEP ONE: Identify unwanted behavior.
Specify exactly the behavior--what, when and where--that you would like to reduce in frequency or eliminate. Example: suppose you are a loner but want to be more socially outgoing and involved with others. You might identify several target behaviors: (1) stop finding it more comfortable to stay at home than to socialize a couple of times per week, (2) stop eating lunch alone in the office, eat with a friend twice a week, (3) stop merely speaking to people, have meaningful conversations, and (4) stop taking coffee breaks alone.
Remember the unwanted "behavior" can be a thought or attitude or perhaps a feeling too, like a depressed thought or a jealous feeling.
Note: Before using punishment, it is worthwhile to study carefully the situation the unwanted behavior occurs in and the reinforcement the unwanted behavior seems to be receiving. If you can stop the behavior by modifying the environment or stopping the reinforcement, that is probably a better approach than self-punishment.
STEP TWO: Devise an appropriate punishment.
There are several ways, consider these examples:
- Physical discomfort--flipping yourself on the wrist with a rubber band, smoking in a closed space, biting your tongue, doing extra exercise, going hungry, having to do a hard, dirty job, etc.
- Taking away something pleasant--no dessert, not getting to go to a show or shopping, no TV, can't see friends, giving up valuable possessions, etc. Behaviorists call this "time out" if it is only a temporary loss.
- Rules, fines, and penalties--"you can't have coffee unless you are talking with a friend," "if you don't exercise, you can't watch your favorite soap at noon," etc. Behaviorists call this "response cost." They also refer to "consequences" (an unpleasant task is required if unwanted behavior occurs), "correction" (must make up for the harm done by the unwanted behavior), and "over-correction" (more than make up for, e.g. if you haven't done your share of the dishes for two days, you must make up for the dish washing you have missed plus wash and wax the floor as well). Common penalties include giving a lot of money to hated causes, having to publicly confess one's sins, etc.
- Self-criticism--talking to yourself like a critical parent can be punishing: "you can do better than that!" or "that's a dumb thing to say, why don't you learn more about this" or "if you had spent more time preparing, you wouldn't have been so embarrassed" or "you should be doing this perfectly by now, what is wrong with you any how?"
- Confronting the real consequences--list the disadvantages and dire possible consequences, especially long-term ones we tend to overlook. This is particularly good for harmful, expensive habits, like drinking, drugs, smoking, overeating, gambling, reckless driving, and so on. Example: suppose you have a quick temper and a tendency to blame and criticize others. There are lots of disadvantages: it's hard on your body, it interferes with being empathic and caring, it jeopardizes every relationship (with parents, children, spouse, co-workers), and it forebodes an unhappy life in many ways. Dwelling on these outcomes can punish the unwanted behavior.
Don't exaggerate the awful consequences, just be honest. Consider what could be done instead of the unwanted behavior, e.g. how could the time, perhaps 10, 000 hours, and $10,000 to $50,000+ be spent in a more loving way than drinking? How could the time, energy, and thought spent on hate, fruitless arguing, and blaming in a life-time be better spent? My favorite example is that most 18-year-olds could probably have a MD or Ph.D. if he/she had given up TV and music.
- Have horrible fantasies--using the list of disadvantages, it may be helpful to vividly face the awful possible outcomes of the unwanted behavior. Examples: the smoker can read about and get a clear picture of lung cancer and heart disease made more likely by smoking. You might even do volunteer work at a hospital to get a better picture. The angry person can imagine being dissatisfied with his/her spouse, having terrible fights brought on by critical, demanding, derogatory comments, hurting the person who has been closest to him/her, and ending up being divorced, bitter and alone until he/she dies.
- You may want help from others in administering the punishment--just letting others know your self-control is failing may be punishing, especially if you have a rule that you have to show others your bitten fingernails or the roll of fat on your stomach or how little work you have done. Friends can also punish you at your request: they can remind you of your goals, they can criticize, they can give away money or valued possessions if you fail to reach a goal, they can refuse to do things with you, etc.
STEP THREE: Make up a contract for the administration of the punishment.
Be very precise about when the punishment will be given, what it is, and what it is for. See method #16 for an example of a contract. Don't cop out.
There are two basic methods of aversive conditioning: "punishment training" and "classical conditioning." Example of punishment training: Over 35 years ago 5000 alcoholics were given drugs to induce nausea and vomiting after drinking alcohol. They had a 50% success rate after 6-10 hours of treatment; that's remarkable. Examples of classical conditioning: pairing electric shock with the sight and smell of a glass of whisky or shocking a homosexual while he/she is fantasizing some homosexual experience.
The learning principles in punishment training are about the same as learning desired traits by positive reinforcement: administer the punishment immediately following the unwanted behavior, administer it full strength and 100% of the time at first (but not so often one get's "used to it"), and provide support for desired behaviors to replace the unwanted behaviors.
In addition to punishing the unwanted behavior, it may be helpful to "punish" (pair with something unpleasant) the stimuli and cues that precede (in the behavior chain) or initiate the unwanted behavior as well. Example: flip your wrist with a rubber band when you do anything associated with smoking, e.g. buy a pack of cigarettes, open the pack, feel the urge to smoke, see an ash tray, feel tense, want a beer, etc.
STEP FOUR: Try the punishment and see the results; encourage the desired behavior.
In most cases there are behaviors that should be substituted for the unwanted behavior. They should be learned and practiced and reinforced before the old behavior is punished. Often the avoidance of punishment is the negative reinforcement for the desired behavior (see method #17).
Total time involved=1 to 2 hours. It may take a few minutes each day to carry out the punishment. But the entire procedure is usually quick, 1 to 3 weeks, if the punishment is effective.
Common problems with the method
Quitting or just "forgetting" is common. Don't forget, the pain from self-punishment is punishing your self-help efforts to change just as much as it is punishing the unwanted behavior. Also, for unknown reasons, sometimes the punishment is not effective. For instance, just as a scolding may not work with a child (because the attention is more rewarding than the criticism is punishing), certain fines may not work. They may not be big enough or the money may go to a worthy cause. Many people have found that giving money away to disliked causes, e.g. Nazi or KKK or Democrat/Republican (your choice) Party, is more painful and effective.
Research has suggested that horrible fantasies are not effective, such as thinking of having rotting, painful teeth as a means of motivating tooth brushing. Apparently, one tries to forget the horrible consequences and in the process also forgets to brush their teeth too. However, this suggests the horrible fantasies do have power, if you are able to use them in an effective way.
A teacher who uses too much punishment is likely to become disliked by the students, the class room may become oppressive to the students, and the students may start hating school. The menacing aspects of the punishment generalize to everything surrounding the punishment. Likewise, your own excessive focus on the unpleasant consequences of not studying could result in less interest and pleasure from learning, but this doesn't seem to be very likely. In chapter 14, we will see that academic motivation is increased by having fantasies of a great life as a result of studying and having fantasies of being miserable if you fail to study. Be sure to work on increasing intrinsic satisfaction from the desired behavior at the same time (see method #15) you self-punish.
The drop-out rate from therapy using painful electric shock (non-convulsive) is as high as 85% in some studies. Self-punishment may not have nearly as high a rate, but if it causes self-helpers to avoid trying other methods or other projects of self-improvement (or therapy), that could be a serious problem.
Effectivness, advantages and dangers
Don't use electricity as a source of pain without consulting with a therapist. Certainly don't build your own electric shocking equipment. Household current can be deadly.
As with punishment, if self-punishment is sure, swift, and severe enough, it will probably be effective. There is very little research in this area, thus far. Aversive conditioning has been done with many different kinds of unwanted behavior with mixed results, but in general the specific target behavior punished within a specific setting is quickly stopped. However, the unwanted behavior (usually unwanted by someone else, not the actor) is often not stopped if the person is with other people or in other situations (away from the punisher), and the behavior resumes after the punishment is stopped. Perhaps the benefits from self-punishment will quickly disappear if you don't seriously intend to resume the project if the unwanted behavior returns. Also, the self-punisher should place considerable emphasis on learning the desired behavior to replace the unwanted behavior.
Time out, overcorrection, and response cost are effective in the short-term with handicapped patients, although in some cases symptom substitution occurs (other unwanted behavior increases). The long-term results of aversive techniques in humans are not known yet.
There are some dangers, in addition to the physical risks and anti-self-help attitudes mentioned above. Any potentially high emotion and/or self-demeaning method could cause harm, I suppose, but this has not been observed. Yet, self-critical persons urged to become even more self-critical could be harmed.
Bellack, A. and Hersen, M. Behavior modification, New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.
Matson, J. L. & DiLorenzo, T. M. (1992). Punishment and its alternatives. Springfield, IL: Springer.