What Is Punishment?

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.

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 amplifies the injury and makes it impossible 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.

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.

Disciplining Children

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) came out with a statement against spanking and other corporal punishment for children, citing these very reasons.


Anger, Parenting, Child Development


What’s the difference between punishment and revenge? The distinction 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. After being wronged, a person’s desire for revenge is natural, but evidence suggests that it rarely helps heal psychological wounds, and instead tends to cause additional, long-lasting problems for everyone involved.


Forgiveness, Passive-Aggression, Anger

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