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July 12, 2006 11:18 AM   Subscribe

New research finds that the human brain registers the avoidance of an anticipated punishment in pretty much the same way as it registers a reward. (See this link for a less technical discussion of the research.) Do these findings suggest that the use of punishment as a deterrent to undesirable behavior in effect actually motivates the undesirable behavior (as opposed to the use of negative reinforcement, or in other words, the withholding of reward)? Do punishment-oriented models of socialization/behaviorial conditioning actually encourage cheating, by in effect selecting for better cheaters?
posted by saulgoodman (28 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
What's with all the framing questions? Are you a Plastic refugee? How about you find links and answer some of those questions for us?
posted by absalom at 11:32 AM on July 12, 2006

And where do bondage/domination fetishes play into this? Bad boy, you'll get a spanking!
posted by anthill at 11:32 AM on July 12, 2006

So, young masochists become evil later in life?
posted by IronLizard at 11:36 AM on July 12, 2006

thanks for the penetrating analysis, guys.
posted by saulgoodman at 11:37 AM on July 12, 2006

I really don't know what you expected. There's no real context here and your explanation of the article is a train-wreck. Follow up links on the old research, maybe? Not to mention the parentheticals don't do you any favors as far as understandability goes. Instead of posing questions, present information.

Write your own term paper.
posted by absalom at 11:48 AM on July 12, 2006

What's with all the framing questions? Are you a Plastic refugee?

Dunno. What's that? I suppose I wanted to talk about the subject in the article I linked, and for me at least, there was a certain entry point that kind of made sense. Would you prefer I screen future posts through you, absalom? Is there a preferred style manual you'd like to recommend?
posted by saulgoodman at 11:49 AM on July 12, 2006

Interesting stuff. I wonder how well you can conduct a study like this, though. I mean, if I lose money from my $35 pot for choosing incorrectly, that's not a severe punishment, right? Chances are still good that I'm going to get a few correct, and thus still have some "oh boy reward" stimulation. Setting up a situation where there is no reward at all, and punishment (answer wrong and we'll slam your dick in the oven) might have different results.
posted by boo_radley at 11:57 AM on July 12, 2006

Even if true, what reward could society withhold in the face of criminal behavior? Or would the suggestion be that we shouldn't punish any behavior as that would result in the fewest offenders?

Frankly, I'd rather have fewer better cheaters than more crappier cheaters.
posted by obfusciatrist at 12:08 PM on July 12, 2006

My dog totally factors in to this somehow. We found early on that corrective/punishment methods mostly only accelerated his emotional state, and he would get aggressive very quickly.

Not wanting an aggressive dog we pledged to only use "positive reinforcement" methods on him. What sucks about him is he realized that positive reinforcement method led him to getting food/praise, which taught him that if he wants food or attention or both, all he as to do is scream (he's a shiba so he screams -- video, not my dog) or break something.

So I guess what I'm saying is -- it seems to me that neither positive not negative sanctions work... what else is left?
posted by illovich at 12:26 PM on July 12, 2006

Yeah, if you don't punish someone for cheating, it is basically a reward for them.

The trick is to either make sure you catch them a large enough percentage of the time, or give other incentives. Other incentives might be such things as an ethic, morality, conciousness etc..

Punishment only works as a stopgap solution. There is an underlying problem if someone must be punished repeatedly over a long period of time for similar behavior.
posted by parallax7d at 12:30 PM on July 12, 2006


I am unclear as to what stimulus led to the positive reinforcement. You can't just reward a quiet dog and expect him to equate the reward with being quiet.

Like language a double negative equals a positive - if I avoid a negative, that is a positive - its intuitive, right?

If you think that negative reinforcement doesn't work, well thats wrong, stick your hand on a red hot stove (The Red Hot Stove Rule) to see what happens. Both negative and positive reinformcement have to be clearly identified with the behavior - not just close in time.

In my work with coaching kids, its clear to me that positive reinforcement works better than negative, but the application of both kinds has to be done in a manner where the effect is clearly linked. Each has a place. The trouble with drawing conclusions too directly from work like this is that it seems to try to ascribe one cause to a very complex set of behaviors - its too simplistic.
posted by sfts2 at 12:40 PM on July 12, 2006

The discovery that punishment can lead to reinforcement of undesirable behaviors is not new (and the authors note this up-front in the introduction). I remember talking about it in a high school psychology class while talking about operant conditioning. What the paper is suggesting is that the neural machinery that encodes reward also encodes absense of negative reward.

What I find most compelling about this is that this seems to say that the brain turns the absense of a reward from the environment into a positive reward. So, if you know that you could have lost x, whatever action you took that led to failing to lose x looks a bit better than could be accounted for by the absense of reward.

What makes the problem of designing reward and punishment interesting is that we should take this into account. Doing some random action that happens to avoid punishment will reinforce that random behavior. It has no implifications for the "correct" action, other than that without experience of the "correct" action the actor will continue to prefer the random action, whatever the social ramifications of that action may be. Ideally, in addition to punishment, there ought to be an incentive towards the correct action.
posted by agent at 12:43 PM on July 12, 2006

agent--good input! for me, one of the interesting take away points is that punishment as a behavior modification mechanism might have the unintended consequence of rewarding some individuals for evading punishment. that is, not that punishment in general doesn't work, but that it works best when it's correctly and consistently applied, and in cases where it it isn't, there's a potential counter-effect that actually works against the intended outcome.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:23 PM on July 12, 2006

If you think that negative reinforcement doesn't work, well thats wrong, stick your hand on a red hot stove (The Red Hot Stove Rule) to see what happens.

sfts2: that's not negative reinforcement--that's punishment. there's a difference. negative reinforcement basically just means you don't provide an anticipated reward.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:25 PM on July 12, 2006

here's a thorough treatment of reinforcement on Wikipedia.
posted by saulgoodman at 1:27 PM on July 12, 2006

agent--good input!

Is your praise of commenters some sort of meta-commentary on the article?
posted by GuyZero at 1:46 PM on July 12, 2006

I assumed it was to contrast my "bad" input.
posted by absalom at 1:52 PM on July 12, 2006

I assumed it was to contrast my "bad" input.

well I guess it does demonstrate the point that punishment alone doesn't necessarily make undesirable behavior go away.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:00 PM on July 12, 2006

Interesting. I remember in intro-level psych classes having the difference between punishment and negative reinforcement drilled into us, and this is just another reason why. I wonder what my psych & law prof thinks of this research.
posted by Eideteker at 2:04 PM on July 12, 2006

Eideteker: Yeah, it took me quite a few embarassing arguments with psychology major friends before I really got the difference.

GuyZero: No, I was just happy to get an actual response to the topic.
posted by saulgoodman at 2:19 PM on July 12, 2006

well, actually, it was more like, I got it, then forgot it, then got it, then forgot it (etc.)...
posted by saulgoodman at 2:20 PM on July 12, 2006

Even if true, what reward could society withhold in the face of criminal behavior? Or would the suggestion be that we shouldn't punish any behavior as that would result in the fewest offenders?

Frankly, I'd rather have fewer better cheaters than more crappier cheaters.

To me this research suggests that systems oriented around punishment would produce roughly equal numbers of both types--or more accurately, individuals who are all to varying degrees just as likely to skirt the rules (when they feel confident they can get away with it) as not. And that pretty much agrees with my experience in day to day life. All of which leads me to think this is a significant result.

To your specific point, social approval and attention are the two most poweful rewards humans have to offer one another. Currently, we give both indiscriminately to terrorists, celebrities, and a whole slew of others regardless of how they behave (or sometimes specifically because they behave in destructive ways), and at the same time we often withold our attention and approval from those closest to us without reason.

Remember science is descriptive, not proscriptive.
posted by saulgoodman at 3:10 PM on July 12, 2006

Metafilter sucks. You are all idiots. I'm leaving.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:25 PM on July 12, 2006

Wait, Smedleyman, have a cookie!
posted by anthill at 3:30 PM on July 12, 2006

Hmmm, is a cookie > or = anticipated level of punishment from earlier comment and gratification for dodging it? Ach! lousy ventral striatum *hurls slide rule*

I read a nifty science fiction story a while back (contained the '!' African glottal I believe) about negative value being an obscenity, as much as child molestation or cannibalism. The race in the story was very money and economy oriented.
Interesting that in the less formal piece crime comes up, in the more sciencey peice it's just 'learning' ('descriptive, not proscriptive' - to quote saul) but that money is one of the incentives. We're such monkeys.
posted by Smedleyman at 3:45 PM on July 12, 2006

We're such monkeys.

yeah, but it's all good.
posted by saulgoodman at 4:21 PM on July 12, 2006

*playfully throws feces*
posted by Smedleyman at 4:31 PM on July 12, 2006

saulgoodman, Thank you for this fascinating article and interesting thread of conversation. It's a subject I'm intensely interested in. Trouble is I have to get up at 6 this morning and now it's 2am. Not much time to discuss this.

Thoughts that come to mind (again, sorry for not fleshing this out and just throwing out a handful of links):

Transactional analysis: warm fuzzies and cold pricklies both being units of stroking in the stroke economy.

Pathological narcissists survive on attention (narcissistic supply). A fuck you and an I love you are equal units to them. A fuck you possibly more energy-charging because of the contempt they hold for love.

Trauma bonding and that traumatically negative experiences can trigger bonding feelings between people.

Deprivation addiction. Patrick Carnes' desctiption in his book, the Betrayal Bond, about neurological addiction to deprivation.

Unpredictable intermittent reinforcement being a causative factor in addiction.

The innate mammalian need for attention and when there is no positive attention, then negative attention sufficing.

Reward deficiency syndrome, creating bonds between an abuser and victim.

Punishment avoidance would seem to trigger a sense of mischievous excitement/exhileration/adrenalin in outtricking the punisher. Like playing any game. A feeling of the situation being a game to play and win, rather than conscience stimulating.

Does punishment trigger a sense of conscience? Can't help thinking it only triggers fear. And fear could stimulate a sense of playing a game, of wanting to win rather than concern about wrongdoing.

Punishment avoidance would also seem to place more of the emphasis on anxiety management rather than clear thinking about 'doing the right thing'.

Too tired to think straight, lol. G'night.
posted by nickyskye at 11:27 PM on July 12, 2006

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