Field Guide to the Enforcer: The Punishers
Vigilante. Policeman. Hall monitor. Why some people risk it all to punish evildoers.
By Mark Teich published March 1, 2009 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
When Kevin Wilby started his new job as an elementary school teacher in Sylmar, California, he was given strict guidelines about how to maintain order in his classroom. According to the school's policy of "assertive discipline," Wilby was to keep track of when kids talked back, threw spitwads, or otherwise misbehaved. Only after ten infractions could he send one to the principal.
But Wilby soon found that classroom rebels simply misbehaved nine times, then stopped. "They'd disrupt my classroom repeatedly without getting punished," recalls Wilby. "So I started suspending kids the first time they misbehaved. And they stopped misbehaving."
Since then, one principal after another has assailed Wilby for being so severe. And Wilby has made life even harder for himself by filing complaints against principals who bully teachers and even testifying against them in court. "One principal even threatened to file phony child abuse charges against me," recalls Wilby. "It got so bad I had to move to another school."
Wilby is an enforcer—compelled to punish wrongdoers and stamp out injustice even when it means making himself a target. Self-assertive, with a deep sense of right and wrong, and with occasional authoritarian tendencies, enforcers do whatever they feel is necessary to keep their community in order—no matter the personal cost. While most of us bite our tongues when we see someone cheated or treated unfairly, enforcers cannot be stifled.
We all have a little enforcer in us—but studies show that some of us go much further, willing even to sacrifice monetary rewards for the sake of punishing cheaters.
Unsurprisingly, enforcers gravitate to police work and the military. But they can also be drawn to teaching, athletic coaching, or other professions involving leadership and social control, notes Sam Gosling, a personality psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin. And in many other fields there are whistleblowers, who risk their jobs to report superiors for unethical, illegal, or dangerous practices.
Enforcer types tend to be stress lovers. "Certain people have more stimulation-seeking nervous systems," says Mike Matthews, an engineering psychologist at West Point. "They have a higher tolerance or need for stress and they crave excitement."
They're also more suspicious than average, explains Larry Ball, a former police officer and clinical psychologist with the L.A. County Chief Executive Office. In fact, he argues, the ideal police officer or soldier registers on the clinical scale for paranoia in the low to moderate range—not truly paranoid, but cautious, self-controlled, and prepared for crisis.
Enforcers tend to be extroverted—excitement-seeking, cheerful, sociable—and value being part of a team of colleagues with a common social purpose, "something larger than themselves," says Matthews. They're also honest, conservative, conventional, conscientious, and disciplined, and believe in duty, societal rules, and achievement through planned, rather than spontaneous, behavior.
What compels someone to lead the charge? Genetics may play a role. A study of Swedish twins found that more than 40 percent of the variation in willingness to sacrifice monetary rewards to punish unfairness can be traced to genetics.
Parenting is also a factor. Research from the 1950s placed enforcers in the classic personality type known as "authoritarian," which included conventionalism, respect for and submission to authority, aggression, stereotyping, power and toughness, and scapegoating, and was usually attributed to childhood exposure to a strong, authoritarian father.
Parental influence is still believed to play a part. Enforcers may be driven to please demanding fathers. "Police officers and soldiers often want to gain parental approval," says Ball. "They're saying, 'Look at me, Dad! I'm a good guy, just like you wanted me to be!' "
But what's the actual mechanism that drives enforcers to punish? The answer may be emotional outrage. "Anger has always served a personal and social purpose—to detect cheaters and freeloaders and deter them," explains Nando Pelusi, an evolutionary psychologist with a private practice in New York. Sustained anger may even help the enforcer do good work, Pelusi points out—as in the case of Simon Wiesenthal, who spent decades tracking down former Nazis.
Of course, burnout, job dissatisfaction, and the stress of crisis can cause anger and outrage to fly out of control, driving enforcers to vengeance rather than service—think of the cops who beat Rodney King. Uncontrolled outrage can even lead to vigilantism, when people who aren't in enforcement professions act as enforcers.
Being an enforcer has its advantages. On a subconscious level, enforcers may be trading short-term losses for long-term gains. "In many human societies, including hunter-gatherer, interaction is typically not one-shot but repeated," says Bjorn Wallace, an economist at the Stockholm School of Economics. "It may be adaptive to incur the short-run costs of punishing to reap the future benefits of a reputation that says, 'Don't mess with me.'"
"Punishers benefit from playing the hero," explains Omar Tonsi Eldakar, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Arizona, Tucson. "The costs of punishing may ultimately be offset by the public favor and attractiveness that come from appearing dominant."
Studies have found that social cooperation and punishment go hand in hand. In fact, punishment is often an altruistic act: Enforcers uphold fairness and order despite very real personal costs. Whether the punishment they dish out is just and warranted or sadistic, enforcers also face "social disapproval, public scorn, hardship, persecution, or death itself," writes retired army lieutenant colonel Dave Grossman, author of On Killing .
Enforcers tend to be submissive to people above them and controlling of those below. "It's good to have authoritarians below you, especially in policing and the military when you don't want people questioning authority," explains Gosling. "But being below them is tough because they're wielding power over you."
A second hazard of being an enforcer is taking on the traits of your enemy—as when American soldiers and military contractors, putatively fighting terrorism, tortured detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Just as sheepdogs protect sheep against wolves but look and act a little like wolves themselves, an enforcer may feel tempted to match a cheater's antagonism, ferocity, or violence.
Episodes of abuse may be brief—the temporary result of a sudden, autonomic response produced by an adrenaline rush, as when a police officer or soldier goes into "punishing mode" because of heightened agitation after a harrowing vehicle pursuit or combat.
But some are drawn to enforcement because they want to wield power over people. As a young officer in New Jersey, Frank Doehler saw police who roughed people up just for fun or due to racism.
Eldakar's research has found that even as they maintain the hierarchy, those most willing to punish cheaters may be the ones most tempted to cheat themselves. "These selfish punishers maintain and protect 'flocks' of cooperators for their own advantage, the way the Mafia offers protection for a price," says Eldakar. "A dominant individual exploits subordinates, yet prevents others from doing the same."
In the end, exploitative enforcers are the exception. "Far and away, successful enforcers are balanced, orderly, and reasonable," says Ball. "Most want to serve their community, to do good for people. It's as much social work as enforcement."
If you feel the need to crucify people for even the slightest infractions, you may be asking for a hard life. How to yoke it down a notch:
- Punish only to correct wrongdoing, never out of anger or spite.
- Think ahead before you blow the whistle. You could face repercussions for years.
- Check your ego. Punishment should be about doing what's right—not proving you're right.