Punishments Don’t Change Behavior. They Change Its Costs.

Punishment and reward teach people how to weigh benefits and risks — but nothing about why their behavior matters.

Five children sit on a bench, their backs to the viewer. Image credit: Piron Guillaume, Unsplash

Here’s a conversation we’re not ready to have:

Punishments do not change behavior. Punishments only change the costs of behavior.

For example: Say that your older child is teasing, tormenting, bullying or otherwise picking on your younger child. In an attempt to stop this behavior, you tell Older Child, “if you treat Younger that way again, you’ll lose computer privileges for a week.”

A few hours later, Younger is in tears. You confiscate Older’s phone, expecting to “teach them a lesson” that results in a behavior change.

But what is the lesson? How will it be learned? For that matter, how exactly was it taught?

Punishments Don’t Address Behavior

Recall the deal: “if you treat Younger that way again, you’ll lose computer privileges for a week.”

Nowhere does that deal say Older Child must stop tormenting Younger Child. It doesn’t try to determine why the tormenting happens. It doesn’t express any moral or ethical position on tormenting Younger.

But it’s not neutral on tormenting Younger, either. In fact, the deal implicitly condones Older’s behavior — for a price.

“If you treat Younger that way again, you’ll lose computer privileges for a week” doesn’t say “stop tormenting Younger.” It says “You may continue to torment Younger, but from now on, the cost of that privilege will be giving up your computer time for a week.”

Now Older has a choice to make. If Older decides what they get from keeping the computer time is worth more than what they get from picking on Younger, Older will pay for their computer time by foregoing bullying. If Older decides what they get from picking on Younger is worth more than what they get from computer time, Older will forego computer time to pick on Younger.

Either way, Older won’t focus on the bullying behavior. Older will focus on the price tag.

Punishments do not change behavior. They turn behavior choices into economic questions.

But it gets worse.

Punishments Place Value on Behavior They’re Intended to Stop

Suppose your neighbor bought a new car. They put their old car in the front yard, with a sign on it reading “Free.” How high do you think the value of that car is?

If you’re like most people, you suspect it’s pretty low. You might assume the car doesn’t even run at all. After all, even a car that doesn’t run is usually worth a few hundred dollars at the local scrapyard.

Putting a price tag on something increases its perceived value. If you have to pay for something, you’re more likely to assume it’s valuable than if it’s simply given away for free — especially in a culture that values “the hustle” and in which fewer and fewer people have the resources to waste on largesse. If something is free, it’s probably valueless, unless it rides along with something you’re already paying for (like those free breadsticks at Olive Garden).

Higher price tags can lead to higher perceived values, as well. Shoe store chain Payless demonstrated this point in 2018 by creating a fake luxury shoe brand, “Palessi,” and asking shoppers how much they’d pay for a pair of Palessi shoes (actually just Payless’s usual budget brands).

The answer: Twenty or more times what those shoppers would pay in an actual Payless store.

The same pair of shoes, worth only $20 to a shopper at “Payless,” were suddenly worth $400 to a shopper at “Palessi.” Shoppers’ perception of the shoes’ quality was higher as well: Many justified their three-figure price quote by praising the shoes’ construction, design or materials.

Increasing perceived value by assigning a hefty price tag isn’t a phenomenon limited to budget shoes. When it comes to your hypothetical children, assigning a punishment to “picking on Younger” also increases the perceived value of the activity.

Assigning a punishment provides a comparison value against which to measure, indicating roughly how much you, as a parent, value the bullying of your younger child. In this example, by putting a price tag on “picking on Younger,” you tell Older that you think the value of picking on Younger is equal to or lesser than to Older’s assessment of the value of their computer time.

When you picked “computer time,” you probably picked it because you knew Older valued it — more, you hoped, than picking on Younger. After all, common wisdom regarding punishments is to “choose something the target cares about,” right? If the price tag of computer loss is too high, Older will quit the bullying because it had less value than computer time.

But you also told Older that picking on Younger was not valueless. It has a value that can be pitted against other values. And in this case, that value is roughly as high as Older’s appreciation of their computer time.

The more you raise the value of avoiding the punishment, the more vehemently you state that the punished behavior has value. Suddenly, you’ve given tormenting Younger — a behavior whose value you wish was zero — an even higher perceived value than it had before you threatened punishment.

You didn’t change the behavior. You just communicated its high value.

Older already knew picking on Younger had value, by the way. Which raises our second problem: Economic choices are not (always) made in a vacuum.

Effective Punishments Depend on Having Monopoly Power

Let’s say you really want those Palessi shoes, but they’re not available at Payless. In fact, they’re only available from one store, and that store charges $500 a pair for them — more than you’re willing to pay.

If that one shoe store were the world’s only choice for shoes, you’d be stuck with the $500 price tag if you wanted the shoes. But it’s not. You can shop for similar shoes from other shoe stores, or look for a pair of the shoes on the used-clothing market, or split the cost of the shoes with a friend and share them. Or you might sell some shoes you don’t wear or get a part-time job until you have enough money that you feel comfortable parting with $500.

You value both your money and the shoes, so you look for ways to reduce the costs of parting with the money (have more) or owning the shoes (buy discount or used, share) until you reach a balance that allows you to have both.

Likewise, in the “pick on Younger or have computer time” deal, Older’s choice isn’t merely computer versus bullying.

Older can, and likely will, find ways to reduce the cost of the more-costly choice so that both choices remain accessible. This is particularly likely to occur if both choices are close in value in Older’s mind.

Say Older values computer time and picking on Younger equally. After a few moments’ thought, Older realizes that your household isn’t the only one with a computer: Older can go to a friend’s, or the library, or stay after school in the computer lab.

Now Older can eat their cake and have it: They can both get computer time and continue to pick on Younger, all because they realized you are not the sole vendor of computer access.

Similarly, Older may decide that they don’t want to give up bullying, but that bullying Younger isn’t strictly necessary; it’s just convenient (like how you may decide that you want shoes similar to the Palessi shoes, but the Palessi label isn’t strictly necessary). Older may stop bullying Younger, but may instead start bullying the neighbor’s child, or the kids on the playground at school.

You haven’t taught Older to stop bullying, just like Palessi hasn’t taught you to value your money more than having shoes. You’ve merely taught Older how to comparison-shop to get the best value on the features they want most — whether those are bullying or ballet flats.

Punishments won’t work if you don’t have monopoly power over both the behavior and the price tag on it, because the target can always comparison-shop. But here’s the kicker:

Punishments don’t work if you do have monopoly power, either.

Punishments Do the Most Harm When the Target Has No Choices

So far, our examples have looked at economic choices between fully voluntary, chosen behaviors. You are free to pay money or go barefoot. Older is free to bully Younger or play on the computer. Both you and Older have alternate options in both of your choice situations; you both have roughly equivalent information about those options; you both have the power to do or not-do each thing, or to “shop elsewhere.”

In economic terms, we generally think of this freedom as “competition” or “elasticity.” It’s essential to the functioning of a capitalist market. And when it doesn’t exist, externalities pile up quickly.

Consider, for example, the ongoing problem of for-profit healthcare. For years, we’ve heard the argument that rising healthcare costs aren’t too concerning, because patients can “shop around” to find the “best value” for their medical care. The more patients do this, goes the argument, the better controlled healthcare costs will become.

Yet healthcare costs keep rising. Why? The data indicates that two things are happening:

  • Patients aren’t “shopping around” for the “best value,” because factors like lack of information and urgency prevent them from doing so. You don’t have the time or health necessary to call five hospitals for their appendectomy prices as your appendix bursts, for instance.
  • Patients rely on the healthcare system itself to provide the information they need to make informed economic decisions. Is your vague headache hay fever or a rare form of brain cancer? To get the “best value,” patients need to know which they have before they go to the doctor — but they must go to the doctor to find out which they have.

On the other side of the equation, patients are losing ground as well. A 2019 study found that 40 percent of Americans don’t even have $400 available for a sudden emergency. When the average doctor’s visit without insurance costs $300 or more, many people find that “pay money or skip lifesaving medical care” isn’t a choice on either side of the equation. They have no money to pay; they need medical care to live.

There’s no point in shopping around for healthcare when you can’t afford anyone’s prices on it, and when you’re going to seek it anyway because debt beats death.

What does this have to do with the punishing children? Everything.

As noted above, punishments won’t be effective if you do not have monopoly power over both sides of the deal offered. As long as your child is free to “shop around” for the “best value” and to choose or forego either option, your child will find ways to rearrange the balance to suit them.

But if you do have monopoly power over both sides of the deal, then there is no deal. Your child can no longer make a choice about the cost of their behavior, because there is no choice. Either way, they will suffer.

Here’s an example.

Suppose that, instead of picking on Younger, Older never starts talking. Older instead points at things, or makes various noises, or bangs on objects to get your attention. This goes on for years, until a doctor explains that the reason Older doesn’t talk is because you’ve coddled them so they never had to.

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense — all your other kids talk — but you paid for this professional advice and you’re going to follow it. And the first piece of advice you implement is to punish Older in order to get them to knock off this not-talking nonsense. You start taking away Older’s favorite foods, their favorite toys, even their bedding. You start ignoring Older when they point or bang on things and lavishing them with praise when they grunt or squeal — but Older still refuses to make words.

You know that Older has never said a word in their life, but you’re desperate for a solution, and you trust the doctor who told you to toughen up. “Clearly,” you think, “not talking is still more valuable to Older than having all their personal possessions or their family’s attention. I know Older could talk if they wanted to, so they must not want it bad enough.”

Since it seems obvious to you that the sum of all Older’s privileges is still lower in value to them than not-talking — and because you’re sick of waiting on them — you decide to turn up the heat. You tell Older, “you’re not leaving this house or eating until you say ‘food’.”

Now you have monopoly power over the equation, right? Stuck on in the house, Older can’t “shop around” for food — they’re dependent entirely on you for it. Nor can they find a way to forgo talking and still get food, because you won’t accept anything but Older saying the word “food” in order to get it.

Except, just like indigent patients in desperate need of lifesaving healthcare, Older is now in an impossible position. Older needs food to survive. Older actually cannot talk.

Having monopoly power over both choices in a punishment is the only way to prevent shopping — but it results in harm to the target that has nothing to do with the behavior you’re trying to change.

If this sounds like an extreme or contrived example, it’s not. Applied Behavioral Analysis — the current “gold standard” for treating autism in children, including nonspeaking children — uses precisely these techniques in precisely these situations. (The practice’s seminal text, The Me Book, specifically calls for using food this way, calling it “a great motivator.”) To “treat” a condition that prevents certain forms of social, sensory and motor engagement, ABA forces its targets into situations where they must “choose” between survival and doing a thing their very condition prevents them from doing.

This is like “treating” a broken leg by withholding food until the patient walks on it.

ABA has changed somewhat since its inception in The Me Book, however. Today, many practitioners will tell you they don’t use punishments — only rewards. But….

Rewards Have the Exact Same Problems Punishments Do

Rewards cause the same problems as punishments. That is to say: Rewards do not change behavior. They merely change the costs of behavior.

To return to our original example: Suppose that instead of telling Older “if you pick on Younger again, you’ll lose your computer time for a week,” you say “if you don’t pick on Younger for a week, I’ll buy you a new computer game.”

It may sound like a kinder, gentler way to get Older to change their behavior. Yet you still have not targeted the behavior itself. You’ve only made it more expensive to do the behavior than not do it.

First, you’ve still put a price tag on “bullying Younger,” communicating that you think bullying Younger has value — here, a roughly equivalent value to the amount of money you’ll save if the bullying continues. (Something to consider if you’re a fan of handing out candy for correct answers or gift cards for “work effort.”)

You also pit the cost of changing a habit against the value of a potential payoff. In other words, Older has to pay all the costs of the change upfront, but is not guaranteed a payoff. Maybe you’ll decide Older’s work is “not good enough,” or you lose your job, or you just forget you made the deal. Older now has to decide which is more valuable: “working to change my behavior because maybe I’ll get a new game” or “doing nothing and receiving nothing I don’t already have.”

Older can still “shop around,” as well. Maybe they really want that computer game, but their best friend already has it and is happy to share their copy. Or maybe Older has been saving up their allowance and realizes that if they buy the game themselves, they can have the game and freedom to torment Younger. Or they transfer their bullying to the neighbor’s kid for a week, get the game, and go right back to picking on Younger. (Maybe they “behave” long enough to get the game and then pick on both targets, effectively doubling their engagement in the very behavior you’re trying to prevent.)

Monopoly power over rewards doesn’t work for the same reason monopoly power over punishments does not: Without the real economic power to shop around, Older will merely suffer externalities that have nothing to do with the behavior itself. “Every time you say ‘food’ I’ll give you bite of your dinner,” to Older, is the exact same problem as “no food until you say ‘food’”: Without control over either side of the deal, there’s nothing Older can do but starve.

Worst of all: You still have taught Older nothing at all about why they should not pick on Younger in the first place.

Older hasn’t learned why bullying their sibling is a bad thing. They haven’t learned, for example, that it hurts their younger sibling, or that it hurts the rest of the family, or that it will hurt their ability to navigate the wider social world. Older still has no idea why they shouldn’t bully Younger, and as long as bullying Younger pays off, Older will continue to do it.

All Older knows now is how to get a good deal. And if you control both sides of the deal, Older hasn’t even learned that — Older has only learned that you are a big, mean, irrational monster who can and will kill them to get your way.

As seen in The Atlantic that one time. Freelance writer, sci-fi author, pageantry arts nerd. Tweets @danialexis. See also http://danialexis.net