Why Punishment “Doesn’t Work”

Punishment works, but sometimes, not the way you intend. Here’s why modern animal trainers don’t rely on punishment, and why we should push it aside when looking to change our behavior, too.

The Consequences of Our Actions

The good pigs…

Last month, I continued with our long discussion and deep dive into operant conditioning. I shared how there are four responses to our actions and behaviors, called consequences. If the consequence increases the likelihood we’ll continue performing the associated behavior, it is considered reinforcement (a smile from that cute girl or guy in your spin class may entice you to come back) . If it decreases the likelihood of a behavior, then it is punishment (ideally a speeding ticket reduces your desire to speed). If the consequence is something we receive, such as a physical item or attention, it is positive (note, this doesn’t mean “good”). If the consequence is taking something away (such as driving privileges, or a headache going away after taking aspirin), then we call it negative. So you can have positive and negative punishment (and it doesn’t mean “good” or “bad” punishment), and positive and negative reinforcement.

I mentioned last time that there is not anything inherently wrong with punishment. It can serve an important role, but it is often used as a last resort. Animal trainers today focus on positive reinforcement.

So why is that? Well, that’s what this post is all about!

The Truth About Punishment

Punishment does get a pretty bad reputation. It really is a natural occurrence and a vital consequence for us to experience in order to learn what to avoid. Humans wouldn’t have survived as a species if we didn’t learn from punishment. It dates all the way back to our great-great-great ancestors, trying different berries and foods, and spitting out the yucky ones (possibly poisonous or toxic foods). Without this learned consequence, we would all be dead.

As children, we probably experienced various forms of punishment, whether it was our parents putting us in a time-out, taking away certain toys or privileges, or even just telling us “no, don’t do that.” A parent that scolds their child for wandering too close to a hot stove or electrical outlet are giving a punishing consequence, no matter how mild.

Punishment decreases the likelihood of a behavior. That’s it, plain and simple. However, as I’ve said before, it doesn’t teach us what is appropriate behavior. So, we simply learn what not to do, how to avoid punishment.

This leads to some very unintended learned behaviors. For example, as a teen, god bless my parents, because I was quite the hellion. I still don’t know why my mom didn’t put me up in a nunnery, but it likely wouldn’t have done any good, because I was very skilled at NOT learning my lesson. I performed all kinds of rebellious and risky behavior, but none as unhealthy as my tendency to sneak out of the house. Sometimes I’d meet with my best friend to have a few drinks and smoke cigarettes, other times I traveled very far distances to meet what I called my friends and party. I wasn’t particularly GOOD at sneaking out, at least not at first. I got better. Because when I got caught, my parents would rightly punish me by taking away my driving privileges, not letting me go out on weekends, giving me extra chores, and so on. I’m pretty sure their intention was to teach me to NOT sneak out. But instead, it taught me not to get CAUGHT. I learned how to start the car more quietly, how to turn off the alarm without waking my parents, how long I could stay out, and even how to lie to police officers (yes, I got out of a speeding ticket at 1:00 in the morning). Punishment did not work to put a kibosh on my unruly behavior.

Thirteen (2003)

Do’s and Don’ts

As an animal trainer, I understood how frustrating relying on punishment must be for an animal who cannot speak our language. Imagine trying to teach a dog to sit by simply telling it “no” for all the incorrect behaviors they offer. Don’t stand, don’t jump, don’t bark, don’t walk away. It’s just easier to tell the dog what you DO want.

Honestly, as a fitness instructor, the same principle stands. If you were learning how to squat and all the coach said was “don’t lean forward, don’t cave your knees in, don’t come up on your toes, don’t, don’t don’t”, I’m sure it would be safe to say you wouldn’t last long in the class. Most fitness instructors understood this component, and may use a “don’t” statement but always followed up with a corrective action. I tried to always focus on reinforcing language, teaching students what I wanted rather than what to not do. “Keep your chest up, push your knees out, weight mostly on your heels.” It’s more helpful than bringing up what someone is doing wrong Because when you mention the thing we’re not supposed to do, it becomes the white bear you aren’t supposed to think about. It’s all you can think about.

What I did find frustrating as an instructor was the other ways punishment prevailed in the gym. Even philosophies that were supposed to be motivating were punishment in disguise, like the poster exclaiming “use of the word CAN’T will result in a 10 burpee penalty”. I get the sentiment, that it’s important to do your best and try, but this sets up a dangerous precedent. I always encouraged my participants to include the word “yet” anytime they felt they couldn’t do something. “I can’t do box jumps…yet. “I can’t do a strict pull-up…yet.” But I never punished anyone for expressing their limitations, restrictions, or even just their fears and frustrations.

Because he can’t do them…yet

Don’t Be Late

The biggest example I ever experienced as a fitness instructor on why punishment doesn’t work was my first fitness job I ever had. The small gym had a strict tardy policy, because class time was tight as we moved quickly from the warm-up to the skill to the main workout. Because many times the skill was weight lifting, we never wanted participants to start lifting weight without warming up. So, if a participant was late, we made them do a quick warm-up exercise before joining the rest of class.

Only, the delivery of this policy was presented very much as a punishment. Basically, if you were late, you “had to do burpees”. Okay, so here’s the thing. I LOVE burpees! I LOVE them. They are just about my favorite exercise, even though they are freaking hard, and they are exhausting, and I rarely do them “right” (I don’t believe there’s a wrong way to work your entire body, but I’m not a purist… I digress). Everyone at the gym agreed burpees were tough but essential and an important inclusion to our workouts and warm-ups. So why would you make them the centerfold of a punishment. You are setting everyone up to hate burpees and think of them only as a punishment, not a wonderful (if not exhausting and really challenging) exercise that works your entire body.

The worst of this policy was the behavior the gym was actually teaching. My supervisor scoffed when I brought up the fact that punishment rarely teaches the student what we think it does. “Since we’ve put the policy in place, tardiness has nearly stopped. I kept thinking of my teenage years, and wondered what we were actually teaching. So I asked my class. The answers were both surprising and yet not. Unsurprisingly, we were not teaching our gym members to be on time. We were teaching them to avoid being late. What we were teaching them was a bit shocking.

“Oh, if I’m running late, I just don’t show up,” said several members.

Even more alarming were the dedicated class participants. “I’ve run a red light here and there to avoid getting here late,” one student told me.

Was this what we wanted? For people to drive recklessly or skip class altogether? I asked if I could change the policy just a little. I promised I’d still have late participants warm up properly, but I cut out the punishment language. When a participant was late, I still had them do burpees as a warm-up. Not as punishment, though, but because they are quick and efficient at warming up the entire body.

It was really my language that changed everything for my class. Instead of “you’re late, give me 25 burpees”, my tone was inviting and encouraging. “Oh, I’m so glad you made it! Sorry you missed a fun warm-up. We’re just about to get started with deadlifts/pull-ups/squats. Why don’t you warm-up with, say 20-25 burpees to get warmed up, and then you can jump right in?”

Within two months, my class was the most popular class at the gym. Some say I was just a really positive and fun trainer, and I will take that compliment, but I also know it’s because punishment doesn’t work, and I eliminated it from my practice.

*Side note:

I know I tend to be sporadic with these posts. My motivation comes in waves, and it’s definitely something I’m working on. I’d love to know what type of content you would like to see more of.

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