Parents scold their children to correct their behaviour, hoping that their offspring will discontinue their misbehaviour as a result. What's paradoxical about this kind of punishment is that it can have the opposite effect.
Professor Andreas Eder at the Institute of General Psychology of the University of Würzburg made this discovery during a research project. He has now published his findings in the "Journal of Experimental Psychology: General".
Electric shock as punishment
What was the experiment about? The team of project leader Eder asked test participants to complete a simple task. A number would flash up on a screen. "The participants had to decide whether the number is greater than or smaller than five," the scientist explains. They had to communicate their decision by hitting a key: The left key was for values from one to four and the right key for six to nine.
But previously, the participants had learned that when pressing one of the two keys, they would receive a slightly painful electric shock. "They had experienced to expect discomfort when hitting this key," Eder says. The scientists had assumed that the participants would press the shock-delivering key more slowly.
Surprisingly, the exact opposite was the case. The participants pressed the pain-inducing key even more quickly than before. The scientists were taken aback by this outcome. So punishment alone is not sufficient to stop undesirable behaviour.
Assumptions not confirmed
When looking for an explanation, the scientists assumed that the rapid pressing is caused by heightened arousal. "It could have been that the participants wanted to get over with the pain quickly and would therefore press it more rapidly because they were afraid," Eder says.
But another experiment showed that physical arousal is not responsible for the effect. "Again, the participants were asked to solve the task. Again there were two keys: one causing a weak electric shock, the other delivering a rather strong one."
It turned out that the participants pressed the key more quickly only when this was followed by a weak shock. There was no facilitative effect upon receiving a strong shock despite the fact that the person was more aroused by the latter. So increased arousal is not a plausible explanation for the effect. Then why did the participants expose themselves to the pain more quickly?
"We were able to show that punishment alone does not automatically cause the punished behaviour to be suppressed," Eder sums up the results. Instead, it can even facilitate performing the punished behaviour when applied regularly. "That is the case when the punitive stimulus is used as feedback to control behaviour."
So if it is about the consequence of the behaviour which is anticipated before pressing the key, it should also be possible to induce the reaction facilitation using a neutral stimulus. "A vibration should suffice in that case," Eder says. This assumption was confirmed in further experiments.
Put more simply: The brain uses behavioural consequences to trigger an action more easily even if the consequences are disagreeable for us.
The type of punishment is decisive
The psychologist emphasizes in this context: "It is not that punishment does not work generally. Only it does not always cause the behaviour to be suppressed." Not even when the participants know that something unpleasant will follow.
A paradoxical facilitative effect of punishment is likely if there is no alternative to the punished behaviour, an action needs to be taken quickly and the punishment is rather mild.
Therefore, it is important to also give clear feedback for the desired behaviour as an orientation for the child. Because the child can only learn to stop the undesirable behaviour when it has a clear alternative to the problematic behaviour. Everyday educational practices should focus on pointing out these alternatives to the child.