Factors Influencing the Effectiveness of Punishment


Punishment involves a consequence or penalty that results from violating a rule or law. It may be enforced within familial, educational and penal contexts. Generally, punishment is not an end in itself. Such an act would be more akin to revenge. Instead, punishment intends to modify behavior or, at least, protect society at large from malicious acts. Several factors determine effectiveness.


  • Laws in a society may be enforced always, sometimes or rarely. For instance, jaywalking is against the law, yet few pedestrians ever receive a ticket for not using the crosswalk. Hence, few people feel any qualms about breaking this rule. On the other hand, parking tickets will be issued early and often for motorists who do not follow street signs in a busy metropolitan area. The moral implications of parking in a permit parking zone may seem similar to jaywalking, yet the swiftness and certitude of receiving the punishment proves a much more effective deterrent.


  • Animal behavior can be changed through conditioning. A negative result that occurs immediately after an undesired act creates a bad association in the mind of a dog or a horse. Though more complex, human psychology also may be subject to conditioning. For instance, a child who misbehaves will understand the consequences of his action when an immediate reprimand occurs. However, if the punishment occurred a week later, and the subject has not exhibited any other bad behavior since that time, a spanking would seem undeserved and inexplicable.


  • Fear of certain and immediate punishment may deter potential offenders. However, its effectiveness depends on exterior forces. The minute a criminal senses no one is watching, he may feel no hesitation in breaking the law again. Outside of a police state, situations arise in which citizens must be trusted to follow the law. In this case, a sense of morality is the most effective means of ensuring lawfulness. If a subject understand the reasons behind a law (e.g. safety or social welfare), she will be less likely to break it.

Other Factors

  • Punishment should be commensurate with the severity of the offense. For instance, a firing squad for pickpockets will result in political protests instead of safer streets. Further, the use of physical violence as a form of punishment may increase offenders' aggressive and anti-social tendencies. Finally, rehabilitation may be most likely when rewards are mixed with punishments. Otherwise, be it a criminal or a child, the constant environment of negative reinforcement may result in alienation.


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