Punishment is the imposition of a penalty in response to an offense, and it takes many forms. “An eye for an eye” is one of the strongest human instincts—and one that can be difficult for both individuals and societies to overcome—but decades of evidence show that reciprocating harm is not always the best course of action, either for the offender or the offended. Punishment, when meted out fairly, can work to condition people not to repeat misdeeds, and threats of negative repercussions can act as powerful disincentives.
Punishment has its place—but the ability to rise above baser instincts and judge each situation objectively, and with an eye toward fairness, is one of the highest achievements of humanity and of civilization.
When it comes to raising children, it’s helpful to remember that punishing a child isn't the same as disciplining them. Most parents want to encourage socially acceptable behavior in their children and discourage aggression and defiance. As a result, they find themselves with a choice between reward- or punishment-based discipline. However, research shows that physical punishment is ineffective and often results in long-term adverse outcomes for children regardless of their socioeconomic, ethnic, or religious background. In extreme cases, physical punishment can lead to abuse.
In February 2019, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a statement against spanking and other corporal punishment for children, citing these very reasons.
When parents spank kids, they risk contributing to long-term problems such as antisocial behavior and anxiety. Spanking undermines the parent-child bond and can increase aggression. It may also make someone more likely to use physical punishment on their own kids one day.
Different forms of physical punishment, like spanking, are often ineffective and tend to backfire in the long run. Children are too confused by the pain to learn any lesson the parent might be trying to teach—instead, what they take away is that hitting is acceptable behavior. Physical punishment can lead to a host of negative outcomes, including lower self-esteem, poor relationships with parents, and cognitive issues.
Parents can avoid corporal punishment and still get their children to behave appropriately by using several non-physical, positive parenting alternatives. For example, with very young children, the best methods are structure and distraction. Time-outs for kids (and sometimes their parents) also work well. School-age children respond better to the removal of privileges, such as losing time on a phone or electronic device.
Wondering if you should punish your child? Punishment can breed resentment and lead to increased aggression. In many cases, it’s better to provide positive reinforcement for good behavior rather than punishing misbehavior. Parents should model the behavior they wish to see in their child.
Too often, punishment is subsumed by a desire for revenge, or greatly exceeds the offense committed. Although revenge-seeking has deep roots in the human behavioral repertoire, it can amplify the injury and make it more difficult to move on. What's more, overzealous punishment is rarely an effective deterrent and may cause negative effects that extend beyond the one being punished. A hyper-reactive “tough on crime” position that favors punishment over rehabilitation, for instance, has arguably contributed to an overpopulated prison system with high rates of recidivism.
This behavior emerged to uphold the moral norms of society. Retaliating against someone who has directly harmed you is self-protection: The offender will likely not try it again, and people who witness your punishment won’t make the mistake of targeting you. Third-party punishment—which involves punishing others you observe committing a violation, even if it was not against you—also helps to reinforce moral norms.
In the theory of retribution, the severity of the punishment should fit the crime. Deterrence theory holds that severe or disproportionate punishment is morally justified if it prevents future crime. In rehabilitation theory, the purpose of punishment is to teach the offender, so that they may become a law-abiding citizen. Incapacitation theory involves sending the offender to prison, restricting their freedom so they cannot commit more crimes.
Although it may satisfy an “eye-for-an-eye” retribution mentality, punishment doesn’t necessarily stop crime. Many people who commit crimes are struggling with poverty, addiction, or mental illnesses that cannot be treated with bigger jails and harsher sentences. In fact, approximately 70 percent of offenders are arrested again within five years of their release from prison.
The distinction between punishment and revenge often lies in the methods or motivations behind people's actions, or in the perceived similarity between the inciting offense and the resulting consequence.
While punishment can be meted out between individuals, within families, or on a societal level, revenge is more often dispensed one-to-one—a man circulating nude pictures of an ex-partner after being dumped, for example. Evidence suggests that seeking revenge rarely helps heal psychological wounds, and instead tends to cause additional, long-lasting problems for everyone involved.
The nature of the transgression (big or small) and how personal it feels can make a difference. Generally, the greater the insult or betrayal, the likelier it is that the person will never forgive you. Even then, most people are not inclined to actively seek vengeance. However, if someone is high in Dark Triad traits (i.e., narcissism, psychopathy, or Machiavellianism), then they are more likely to plot and pursue revenge.
When someone wrongs you, it’s tempting to give them a taste of their own medicine. Instead, ask yourself if they really meant to hurt you. Then consider whether taking revenge will help or harm the relationship. Oftentimes, the other person has no idea how terribly they made you feel. The choice to get retribution will likely destroy any hope of reconciling, and it can drive them to retaliate in turn—creating a vicious cycle.
Society highly prizes fidelity and is motivated to “punish” cheaters for their actions. If a marriage breaks up due to one partner cheating, most people shame the person who strayed and agree that the injured party should receive greater benefits in the divorce. Despite this general disapproval of infidelity, society is more likely to punish male cheaters severely than female ones.