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Punishment Doesn't Work, So You Might As Well Stop

Photograph by Twenty20

It's normal for a mother to laugh out loud the first time her child launches a spoonful of peas into the air, but when it happens a second or third time, it may not be as funny.

When mom stops laughing, two things can occur: Either she will take the food away and try again later or completely lose her mind, which can lead to yelling or punishing a child to get them to behave.

And it doesn’t work, that yelling to get them to behave thing (but you sort of know that already, right?). In fact, according to a new study, motivation through punishment doesn't get your kids to listen, and it does more harm than good.

The study involved electroconvulsive therapy (formerly known as electroshock therapy, yikes!), a controversial procedure that passes small electric currents through the brain to reverse symptoms of certain mental illnesses. As painful as it sounds, experts agree that it is safe—as long as patients are under general anesthesia while doctors electrocute the insides of their skull. Oh, and they didn't use it on children, so settle down.

Instead, Professor Andreas Eder and his team of mad scientists examined the motivational effects of response-contingent electric shocks on action initiation. While these experiments were conducted on willing adults, their findings are of interest to those of us with kids.

Here's how it all went down:

Participants were encouraged to complete a simple task after learning they would receive a slightly painful electric shock when pressing one of the two keys. When a number flashed up on a screen, they were asked to determine whether the number was greater than or lesser than five and communicate their decision by hitting the appropriate key.

Simply put, punishment alone does not stop undesirable behavior.

Sounds simple enough. However, when participants hit the wrong key, they got zapped. Why would anyone deliberately do such a thing?

Researchers wondered the same thing and expected participants to press the key more slowly after learning of the electrifying consequences. But, it turns out, they were wrong. Not only did particpants push the pain-inducing key, they did so more quickly than before because they wanted to get it over with due to (scientists assumed) heightened arousal.

The keys in second test were set up a bit differently. Once again, there were only two keys, but this time one of them caused a weak electric shock, while the other delivered a strong one and—no duh—participants chose the key that generated the least amount of pain.

Simply put, punishment alone does not stop undesirable behavior. If anything, it may have the reverse effect, which is why some kids will voluntarily "put themselves in timeout" whenever they do something wrong.

So, the next time the wee ones want to challenge your authority, breathe deep and think of a clear alternative to their problematic response. It's an excellent way to end unwanted behavior without ripping your hair out, and your kids will learn to make tough decisions.

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