Tom Atlee is a leading scholar and promoter of actions related to co-intelligence and group wisdom. In his recent newsletter below, he expresses some important insights regarding the role of punishment in changing individual behavior. His conclusions are entirely consistent with my own beliefs and research findings that behavior is determined not only by personal predisposition, but also by the situational context and systems in which people find themselves embedded. Please consider the points that Tom makes in this posting. – t.h.g.
In my post yesterday I noted that punishing people who do bad things is a form of low-leverage intervention. Here I want to add some nuance and perspective to that statement.
I still believe that punishment BY ITSELF will not, in most cases, make a significant difference in whatever social, economic or environmental problem we think it will solve. One person or group is seldom the cause of what’s wrong. They are usually part of a larger picture — a system, a culture, a worldview, a way of doing business — that enables or encourages people to behave in the ways that they do. If we don’t change such larger dynamics, those dynamics will just continue to generate more problematic perpetrators.
Reading the article below about the coming investigation of bankers and other financial titans, I realized that punishment can, in significant ways, be part of a solution. It just has to be be done in a way that serves the transformation of those larger social dynamics. It can be used to drum up public support for systemic changes that confused citizens otherwise wouldn’t appreciate. It can rouse a sense of “Never Again!” in the larger public, leading to deep reform or transformation.
Punishment can also be embedded in the systemic changes, themselves. The systemic logic of punishment is its deterrent effect (as contrasted with its psychological logic, which may look more like revenge or self-righteousness). If you set things up such that the prospect of punishment causes potential perpetrators to think twice and thus significantly reduces the number of anti-social acts, then the prospect of punishment has served its systemic purpose. Furthermore, if the punishment includes efforts to reform the perpetrator — to expand their awareness, to change their behavior, to set them on a new, more socially benign course in life — that, too, has a systemic impact.
The evolutionary purpose of rewards, punishments and other incentives of all kinds is to help align the self-interest of the individual, group, corporation, or country to the needs and well-being of the larger whole — the whole society, the whole world, the whole of life. The pleasures of food and sex, and the pain of poisons and predators, have had an obvious impact on the evolutionary ability of species to sustain themselves over time. Moral codes and legal systems, social status and myths of heaven and hell, all play roles in aligning the behavior of individuals to the needs of the larger societies they are part of.
CONSCIOUS evolution involves, among other things, setting things up so that when we do the “right” thing we experience pleasure and when we do the “wrong” thing we experience discomfort or pain. “Artificial” incentives are needed to the extent that intrinsic impacts are not sufficiently clear and compelling. When we fill up the gas tank or turn on the light, there is no direct link in our experience to our degradation of the climate. So we may need a “carbon tax” to help us “feel” the negative impacts of our fossil fuel use.
However, the proof of punishment’s value is in the actual impact on behavior. If we see an endless stream of perpetrators being punished — as we do with the drug war — then punishment is not serving its systemic role. If we see the worst perpetrators avoiding punishment because they can buy powerful lawyers or politicians or find loopholes or otherwise undermine enforcement, then punishment is not serving its systemic role. This is not all bad. From a social change perspective, each instance of avoiding deserved punishment gives us more data about what ELSE in the system needs to change in order to support the ongoing health of the larger society and world.
If the identification, publicizing and punishment of perpetrators of the financial meltdown described below reaches deep enough to not only send them to prison BUT ALSO to reform the financial system AND ALSO to change the political/governmental system so that those with undue wealth and political leverage cannot undo those financial reforms (as happened with the New Deal reforms during Clinton’s term), then the punishment would have served its highest systemic purpose. Gigantic concentrations of wealth, the “personhood” of corporations, campaign financing, the “revolving door” of powerful government and corporate positions, the adversarial vote-based system of majoritarian democracy itself — these are just a few of the hot targets for reform at the level that it is needed.
If change is not AT LEAST that deep, the punishment of financial titans will simply discharge some of the public’s energy of upset, and we shall see renewed financial crises over and over, as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow because the earth keep spinning, because that’s the way things are set up to play out.
Coheartedly, Tom PS: And of course this applies to every other issue where punishment is proposed or in place as part of the solution. Tom Atlee, the Co-Intelligence Institute, POB 493, Eugene, OR 97440 http://www.co-intelligence.org / http://www.democracyinnovations.org Tom Atlee’s blog – http://tom-atlee.posterous.com