Tuesday, May 06, 2008

"Punishment Doesn't Work"

That was a comment my friend made, who is currently earning a PhD in Psychology. She was specifically describing our prison system and explained that 50 years of research has demonstrated that punishment doesn't work. I don't know the literature that she is citing (I wish I did), but I want to use this claim as a departure for a meditation on how effective punishment is in our interpersonal relationships.

I am leaving to the side, for the moment, the parenting relationship. I think this is a far more complicated situation. But, I am going to assume, for the sake of this rant, that punishment is something different than teaching moral behavior through consequences. Maybe that is just a liberal repackaging of punishment, but whatever. There can be real substantive difference between punishment and making others aware of the consequences of their actions. If you think of the punishment entailed in imprisonment, then the difference between the two is clearer. Locking someone up--depriving them of their liberty--without any effort to rehabilitate is, according to my friend, totally ineffectual. The outcomes of this kind of prison system are not good.

Now I want to turn to interpersonal relationships. Does punishment ever work in our interpersonal relationships? If someone harms me and I punish them, does the punishment give me the outcome I am seeking? I don't know. I guess it depends on what we mean by punishment. What I have in mind is the following: the silent treatment, withdrawal of affection, ignoring, depriving of services/goods, guilt tripping, moralizing, yelling, and physical harm. This is not an exhaustive list, but what popped into my mind. Do any of these behaviors every result in a good outcome? If we punish others with these behaviors, does it change the dynamic of the relationship for the better? If not (which I suspect is the case), then why do we do it?

Part of the answer might lie in subterranean attitudes of American culture. We have high rhetoric of punishment of the wicked. Some of us were parented this way--most likely because our parents were reared by the punishment model. Punishment of criminals is an important political issue. Law and Order politicians are more successful than "touchy feely" rehabilitation politicians. And, then there is the animal satisfaction of lashing out, of "paying back," of causing misery to someone we perceive has harmed us.

The last motivation intrigues me. I think that when we punish others, we are acting more like my dog who tends to growl at me if I have accidentally stepped on him. He is hurt and he is going to growl as a means of letting me know that I have harmed him. He is not trying to change my behavior.

And yet, how many times do we justify our punishing behaviors as necessary means to improving our relationships. We want to make clear to the other they have "crossed a line" and so we smack them. But, it doesn't work, does it?