Recently, there has been a paradigm shift, mostly in western countries, from an emphasis on crime prevention, to punishment. According to Fowler (2008), this trend is expected to accelerate steadily, at least in the United States. For instance, with respect to juvenile crime, there has been a frequent call for heightened outlays on crime detection and law enforcement, and for increased penalties for criminal as well as other anti-social behaviour (Meyers, 2010). This paper seeks to review the psychological research evidence on the effectiveness of punishment, and propose alternatives to the current trends.
Hollin (2008) describes punishment as the response-contingent use of repulsive or aversive event with intent to suppress, or prevent the recurrence of, that response. Such an aversive event may be physical like flogging an adult, smacking a child and execution, material like loss of activities and/or freedom and imposing of fine, or emotional like the withdrawal of affection and expression of disapproval. The response being punished is that which is deemed as unacceptable usually regarded as illegal behaviour by the society or as ‘'bad’' behaviour by a parent.
The continued widespread of punishment is an indication of the strength of the popular belief in its effectiveness. However, there exists widespread popular acknowledgement of punishment failures to improve behaviour. This has often been attributed to either the ‘weaknesses' of punishment or the ‘incurability’ of the offender’.
First, punishment is an aversive behavioural control method. As such, it is more likely to lead to avoidance learning. This is because learning how to avoid a punishment does not necessarily imply learning to cease the unacceptable behaviour; it can imply learning how to evade detection and apprehension, absent reduction or with an increase in the offending behaviour.
Such avoidance could lead to decreased contact with possible sources of learning of more acceptable behaviour such as counsellors, teachers and parents.
Secondly, inasmuch as increasing the intensity of punishment has been determined to increase the amount of suppression of unacceptable behaviour, complete suppression can only be achieved with extremely intense punishment, more severe than would normally be viewed as humane (Meyers, 2010).
Furthermore, Aronfreed & Reber (2008) assert that sufficiently intense punishment whose sole intent is to have a significant deterrent effect is more likely to have general emotional effects that can hinder any intended learning of alternative behaviours. Therefore, increasing the severity of punishment for the mere reason of increasing deterrence runs the risk of having a counter-productive effect. Punishment that is regarded by a recipient as being severe or excessive is likely to provoke defiance, in the form of higher frequency of offending (Aronfreed & Reber, 2008). In light of the above mentioned shortcomings of the efficacy of punishment as a method of behavioural change, the following alternatives to punishment are discussed.
Meyers (2010) affirms that it would be more cost effective for society to employ resources towards the prevention of criminal and antisocial behaviour, as opposed to its treatment or punishment. He further asserts that aggression and anti-social behaviour are amazingly constant from early childhood into adulthood. Consequently, people who develop aggressive traits during childhood are more likely to remain aggressive in their adulthood.
This, therefore, means that prevention efforts are more effective if implemented during childhood before delinquent, criminal or antisocial behaviour becomes more established. Such prevention includes primary prevention, which is targeted at the whole community, as well as secondary prevention targeted at high risk groups.
However, such prevention measures can only be achieved with proper understanding causative influences on criminal and antisocial behaviour, which include child-rearing conditions, biological factors, ineffective parenting, relations to peers, sex role socialisation, cultural milieu and social factors such as economic inequality as well as media influences.
According to Hollin (2008), prison sentences do nothing except temporarily suppress the undesired behaviour. Also, there is no documented evidence that increasing the duration of prison sentences leads to an increase in either general or specific deterrence.
However, since prison sentences suppress unacceptable behaviour for their duration, this presents one with the opportunity to learn alternative behaviour in place of criminal behaviour.
Prison authorities, therefore, should endeavour to offer trainings on social skills, provide alternatives to violence as conflict-resolution methods, vocational skills and educational programs. This would ensure that prisoners play a productive role in the society as well as achieve their goals through socially acceptable means.
There is a need to replace punishment as a means for controlling behaviour in view of the shortcomings discussed above. Preventive training in pro-social behaviours and programs for reparation, restitution and reintegration of offenders present possible alternatives for the conventional practices of punishment.
Aronfreed, J.D. & Reber, A. (2008). Internalized Behavioural and Suppression and the Timing of Social Punishment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychological, 1, 3-
Fowler, R.D. (2008). Psychology’s Gender Still Strong in 2005. APA Monitor, Jan 1995, 3.
Hollin, C.R. (2008). Criminal Behaviour: A Psychological Approach to Explanation and Prevention. London: The Falmer Press.
Meyers, D.G. (2010).The human puzzle: Psychological research and Christian belief. 3rd edn, NY, New York; Harper & Row.