Perverse Incentives

Science says that punishment doesn’t do any good.

I’ve become a fan of Mark Rober, a science YouTuber, and former NASA engineer. Rober has a great collection of videos that demonstrate how science is applied to practical problems that people face every day. In his videos, he applies his talents and experience to problems like protecting a bird feeder from squirrels, tracking package thieves, and tracking germs in the classroom.

I’ve been watching Rober’s videos with my kids for months. In recent days I came across a TED Talk featuring Mark Rober. Now, this is new to me. I’m used to seeing him give an informal explanation of applied science. Here, we see that he’s giving a much more formal talk on a very interesting phenomenon: The Super Mario Effect — Tricking Your Brain into Learning More.

I’m not really a gamer, but Rober points out something very interesting in his talk on video games. He shows what happens when people are asked to play a game with a control group that loses points when they failed to reach the goal and everyone else who lost zero points. The control group, faced with the realization that they lose points when they fail, quit sooner than the other group that lost zero points.

Rober’s talk is well worth watching for it informs us that what we think of as “common sense”, doesn’t actually work. The “common sense” that I refer to is this idea that people should be punished when they fail. See the graphic below (at 2:11 in the video):

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Rober shows us the statistics from his experiment in which we see a 16% higher success rate in completing the puzzle presented to subjects in the study if there is no penalty for failing to succeed. Users started with 200 points so they had 40 attempts to try and fail before running out of points. The average number of attempts to complete the puzzle was cut in half by the disincentive, the loss of 5 points for each attempt.

So an innocent experiment shows us that punishment is not conducive to learning or success. As I write this, I’ve been thinking back on all the games I have ever played. None of them involved subtraction from points accumulated for failing, the score could only go up, not down.

In the experiment, when people failed, they didn’t lose money, didn’t face a loss of property, nor did they face any social consequences as the results were private. But the subjects of the experiment attached value to the points and they had a strong feeling when they lost points, even if the points were given to them at the start. That feeling was a disincentive to keep trying to complete the puzzle presented to subjects in the experiment.

Yet, as I look around me and the culture I live in, punishment is common sense. As I surveyed the commentary on Twitter about the protests, some of the people I followed said that the protesters got what they deserved when they were beaten by the police. When people disagreed with each other in social media, I saw punitive responses. There seems to be a pervasive idea in my culture that punishment for mistakes should be swift and severe.

When children are in school learning to read, write, and solve math problems, we don't punish them for failing. We encourage them to keep trying. When children are learning to walk, we don’t punish them for falling down. We help them up to try again. But when children fail to comply with our requests or demands for better behavior, we punish them.

We may even begin to think that if we increase the severity of the punishment, that we will finally get compliance. This line of thinking can be fatal. The idea that if the punishment is severe enough we will get compliance was fatal for many boys at the infamous Arthur G. Dozier School For Boys in Florida. One only needs to look at the graveyards in the back of the school to know this.

In my own life, I’ve never seen punishment actually solve a problem. As a boy I was punished by my father with spanking, sitting in the corner, grounding, the loss of privileges, the loss of access to toys and music. I can recall how the punishments escalated. I didn’t know how to rise to his demands. I didn’t know how to do what he was asking me to do. I can recall that at some point, he realized it didn’t work because he just stopped and let me be.

I have my own kids and I’ve never seen punishment work. My wife has tried with both kids and I’ve seen the results and intervened. I’ve done the research and learned how to work with my kids to solve the problems that give rise to unwanted behavior, and I’ve modeled that process for my wife and kids. I became the dad I always wanted for my kids.

When I see people abusing each other, I think of all of this. I see it in movies and TV. The plot follows a simple pattern. The protagonist is minding his own business when confronted with the antagonist. A melee ensues and antagonist scores points in the first encounter. A series of conflicts between protagonist and antagonist are displayed to us, until the climax when the antagonist is fatally dispatched without trial. And we’re all supposed to feel good about that.

Punishment fails because it teaches no skills. Punishment fails because punishment is not a natural consequence of failure. Punishment instills in the victim, the fear of losing. The fear of losing is cumulative and can cause paralysis of the mind in responding to challenges or crises. Does that sound familiar?

When I interact with other people, and they do something that is clearly intended to be offensive to me, I pause. I wait for the feeling to pass. If they’re a threat to my safety (exceedingly rare), I make an exit and leave. If they’re just trying to get a rise out of me, I demur and walk away.

When my kids misbehave, I don't punish them. I ask them to stop and then I explain what the problem is and what I hope to avoid. I explain the natural consequences of their behavior. I describe to them how I feel. If they do something to me that hurts, instead of saying “Stop that!”, I say, “Ouch! That hurts!” and I let them know how I feel. Then they stop because they have empathy.

If my kids do something dangerous, I remove them from the danger. Then I let them know that I’m watching, that what they’re doing is dangerous and I explain the consequences to them. I repeat that process until they change their behavior. I don’t want to be a consequence of their behavior. I want my kids to know the consequence without me in the picture so that they can think for themselves.

There is a ton of science that backs all of this up, but much of it has not made it to the mass media. It’s still not common sense that punishment doesn’t work. Our media is still hooked on punishment and reward. Our media is still hooked on the strong feelings we get when an adversary gets his just reward in drama and action films, and in the news. I’ve become averse to watching most dramas because I can see this dynamic in every plot. There must be a better way to entertain ourselves than to watch people abuse each other.

Mark Rober has contributed to a body of knowledge that shows that punishing people when they make mistakes doesn’t work. It has never worked. I’ve tried it myself as receiver and giver. I’ve never seen punishment achieve the desired result. Not in my life, nor in any other life where it has been tried. When we see people making mistakes, the best thing we can do is to help them fix the mistake and show them how to avoid making the same mistake again.

Write on.

Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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