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Why Are Our Beliefs Geared Towards Punishment?

by Yanira Araujo

Why are our beliefs geared towards punishment? Why do we lack a general understanding of our psyche? As humans and individuals, we must make an effort to understand ourselves. 

If we are pleasure-seeking beings, why is our method of behavior-reinforcement implemented through punishment? Please go back to one of your childhood memories of when you did something wrong and were corrected by being punished. How did it make you feel? Do you still feel sad, angry, ashamed, and resentful? These are the most common feelings that negative reinforcement stirs up. My next question is, has this method stopped you from behaving this way again?

During my preteens years, I decided to move in with my father and brothers in a small apartment in New York City. My father worked long hours, so most of the time, it was only my two brothers and me alone in the apartment. During the first few weeks of my arrival, we got along perfectly fine, but as weeks turned into months, the sharing of the same space without any privacy began to irritate us. With nothing to do but fight each other for entertainment, we jumped at every opportunity where we could act mischievously. I remember, being so bored one afternoon that I began switching the television channel on my older brother who was watching T.V in another room. My brother became so angry that he stormed towards me. I noticed how pissed he was, so I ran to lock myself in my bedroom. He became so furious that he punched through the bedroom door, which was made out of glass causing him to cut his hand. This incident resulted in my older brother being permanently removed from the house.  

That experience elicited so many emotions, from fear, guilt, self-blame, and hatred—all caused by a lack of understanding. For many years I blamed myself for causing the separation. I began to feel isolated from the pack. There were many repercussions and years spent repairing our relationships.

Punishment might seem like the best way to change someone’s behavior effectively. But, what about all the damage it does along the way? And can someone recover from such experiences? Our experience with punishment causes many of our setbacks. We are reluctant to try new experiences to avoid feeling stupid, shameful, and weak, which hinders our learning development. Knew experiences lead to knowledge, and without experiences, we only know the theory.

B.F Skinner was an American psychologist and behaviorist. His most significant work “Operant Conditioning” is the concept that someone learns a behavior as the result of reward or punishments associated with the behavior. There are four types of Operant Conditioning: 

  1. Positive Reinforcement: The behavior is strengthened, and the frequency of the behavior increases because a positive stimulus was applied. Ex: money, praise, awards, food.
  2. Negative Reinforcement: The behavior is strengthened as a result of removing a negative stimulus. 
  3. Punishment: The behavior is weakened and decreased due to negative conditioning.
  4. Extinction: The behavior is weakened because the result did not lead to negative or positive conditioning. 

But the question remains, is punishment the right approach to weakening a behavior, or does this method do more than diminish the action, doesn’t it also decrease your self-esteem? 

Why do we continue to use the same methods expecting different outcomes? Did my brothers and I stop fighting, no? What we need to demonstrate is more understanding, compassion, and reasoning. I believe we learn best from those who speak to us in a gentle tone, expressing their genuine care for our well being. 

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