Study: Punishment Won’t Get Kids to Cooperate


Jan 5, 2018


If the individual family is a microcosm of society, then we should all take note of a new study that adds to the pile of evidence that punishment as a form of discipline rarely gets parents what they really want: cooperation.

In theory, punishment is often seen as a means to coerce people into being more cooperative. To examine whether that actually happens in practice, a team of international researchers led by Marko Jusup of Hokkaido University in Japan and Zhen Wang of Northwestern Polytechnical University in China conducted a “social dilemma experiment” to see if possible punishment improves the overall level of cooperation among network of individuals.

They used a version of the commonly employed “prisoner’s dilemma” game involving 225 students in China, organized into three groups. The groups played games with choices to ‘cooperate,’ or ‘defect.’ A point system linked to monetary compensation was designed to reward cooperation and later, a choice to ‘punish’ defectors was introduced, ultimately intimating the message: If you don’t cooperate with me, I’ll punish you — in theory leading to greater cooperation.

Surprisingly, however, adding punishment as an option did not improve the level of cooperation. The final financial payoffs in the group with the ‘punish’ option were on average, significantly less than those gained by players in the static group.

“While the implied message when punishing someone is ‘I want you to be cooperative,’ the immediate effect is more consistent with the message ‘I want to hurt you,'” write the researchers in their study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Punishment seems to have an overall demoralizing effect, as individuals who get punished on multiple occasions may see a good chunk of their total payoff vanish in a short period of time, explain the researchers. This could lead players to lose interest in the game and play the remaining rounds with less of a rational strategy. The availability of punishment as an option also seems to reduce the incentive to choose cooperation over competition.

Why, then, is punishment so pervasive?

“It could be that human brains are hardwired to derive pleasure from punishing competitors,” says Jusup.

“However, it is more likely that, in real life, a dominant side has the ability to punish without provoking retaliation,” adds Wang.

The team advises it would be unwise to extrapolate the implications of their study far beyond the experimental setting, but Wang’s last statement definitely seems to sum up the inherent power imbalance in a parent-child relationship, even if most of us would couch it in different terms. It also feels safe to assume the unspoken messages punishment sends are the same within a family — especially families with younger children, who lack the experience and cognition necessary to parse cause-and-effect (bad behavior/defiance leads to punishment) and link it to an implied, alternative, desired effect (cooperation).

So if you’re trying to get your kid to cooperate, it’s probably just better — and more effective — to reward them when they do.


Written By Karun Bhandanker

Karun Bhandanker is a staff writer for The Swaddle. He likes both coffee and chai, eats both veg and non-veg, had a great childhood and yet still regularly spends time in a therapist’s office. Perhaps unsurprisingly, on the weekends he’s an all-rounder.


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