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The Bane of Behavior Modification

Punishment doesn’t teach any skills. Neither does reward.

5 min readFeb 9, 2022


America can be a pretty brutal place. When I look at the headlines, I see a lot of punishment flying around. Police shootings, beatings, and other abuse are typical for a day. In our politics, the metaphors are about war, as if we’re at war with each other. We spend an inordinate amount of time probing for weaknesses and pouncing on them, exposing them. And when interpersonal relationships make the news, it’s not usually very positive, even for celebrities.

If the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem begins to look like a nail.

Just the other day on Twitter, I encountered someone who was fueled with hostility for something I said that I thought was innocent. I was just reciting facts and linking to them in my posts. I didn’t insult anyone. But that one person came on hot and heavy with insults and awful language. I let it go. There is no arguing with someone who believes that the best solution is escalation and punishing language. There is nothing to teach because that person already has all the answers. An insult is not an argument that supports one’s position. It is a sign of fear.

Obviously, the press would have us believe that the nation is at war. Not a real war, just a very polarized nation where each side wants the other side to change more to their liking. What we see in the news are stories about how each side punishes the other side to win. I see words like slam, beat, route, expose, derail and denounce as if that passes for discourse.

Our social policies assume that everything is transactional. They assume that punishment is what motivates people to do better. Money is withheld to make people work. Kids are punished if they don’t conform to the norms. People who are different are ostracized just for being different.

Then there are the rewards. The most common reward is more money. Then more recognition, even fame. And then political power. We often reward people with more money, fame, and power when the public approves of them. Most times, we’re not even sure why we do this.

No amount of punishment or reward will actually teach any skills. They’re great for reinforcing behavior, but that’s it. I…