Kristian Marlow, M.S.

Kristian Marlow

The Superhuman Mind

Sloppy Psychology and Zero Tolerance Policies

Let's stop extorting innocent children in the name of deterrence.

Posted May 03, 2013

By now you should have heard of Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old high school student who made the mistake of mixing a few household chemicals in a water bottle at school to see what would happen. The result: an “explosion”—that is—enough pressure built up to cause the top of the bottle to pop off. And a puff of smoke.

Kiera Wilmot

This isn’t the first time school officials have overreacted. At least once a year, some unfortunate child is expelled from school for bringing an ordinary household item to school, completely unaware that any rules are being violated. All in the spirit of “zero tolerance.” But where do these types of policies come from? Do no tolerance policies really prevent the types of behavior that threatens our children? The short answer: no.

Policymakers claim that no tolerance policies make the world safer. The idea seems to be that we can deter egregious acts of violence by instilling fear into the minds of anyone who thinks about acting in a way that even approaches the kinds of acts that terrify us.

No tolerance policies are built upon a sort of reverse “slippery slope” argument. A slippery slope argument intends to show that the allowance of certain relatively minor acts will lead to more undesirable acts being committed in excess. For example, many have argued that the enactment of the “Too Big to Fail” policies that bailed out Detroit motor companies and the big banks has paved the way for reckless operating policies on the part of large corporations that are backed by the US government. This is an instance where a slippery slope argument might be valid.

But some slippery slope arguments are ridiculous. For example, some members of the public with an apparent lack of critical thinking skills literally believe that if we allow gays to marry this decade, we will have to let people marry their chickens and turtles in the future.

Why is the first slippery slope argument above reasonable while the second one is utterly ridiculous? These types of arguments are empirical in nature. They only can work if data supports them. But data doesn’t support zero tolerance argument. In 2008 the American Psychological Association published a comprehensive review of the effectiveness of zero tolerance policies over the prior 20 years. According to the APA, there were surprisingly few data that could directly test the assumptions of the zero tolerance approach and the few data that were available tended to contradict those assumptions. Furthermore, the APA found that zero tolerance policies tend to promote an atmosphere thought disadvantageous to adolescent development.

It shouldn’t be surprising that zero tolerance policies aren’t effective. Zero tolerance policies make examples out of the good guys in order to deter the bad guys, hiding behind a veil of equality. For deterrence to work our methodology must be aimed at the types of individuals who commit crimes with ill will, and that necessarily involves addressing their psychology. That means that our methods of deterring crime might not be aligned with a cookie-cutter notion of justice.

There are two ways we could enact such a methodology. One way is to make our policies so unpredictable that any sane young individual would actively avoid crossing the line. Call this the “Catholic Method.” Anyone who went to Catholic high school (or even a Catholic university) knows that you could get expelled for anything, which was dependent upon the acute emotional state of the school’s disciplinarian and how much your parents participated in PTA events. So you best not act up. But still, you really could get a sense of the types of things that would earn you an expulsion. And no one else batted an eye if you were expelled because you knew you should have done otherwise.

Another way simply is to weigh the student’s intent more heavily than many schools do. That doesn’t mean that benevolent students get away with murder and malevolent students are fried for speaking out of turn. Instead we could give our students the same consideration granted even by our convoluted criminal court system. Students who make mistakes with good intentions would get detentions. And students who knowingly and maliciously commits acts with possible or actual dangerous consequences would have the book thrown at them.

Such methodologies are ways to scare the heck out of the students who walk the line of temptation while sparing the ones who already are on the right path. The rest of individuals—the crazed school shooters, the marathon bombers, the Ted Bundys—aren’t psychologically equipped to respond to zero tolerance methodology. So we need to stop targeting these guys at the expense of the good ones.

I'm interested in reading what some of you think. Post your ideas below.