Home / Opinion / Can punishment change human behaviour?

Do punishments deter more wrongdoing? Do punishments actually reform an offender? Given the present context of one of the most significant initiatives in the history of independent India to fight corruption, the answers to these questions assume huge significance.

Conceptually, most legal systems are retributive. As long as the guilty have been identified, and there is equivalence, at least at a proportional level, between the damage the offender has caused to the victim and the punishment, it is believed justice has been delivered. With it, the expressive role of punishment is fulfilled. It communicates to the offender that society condemns his act and to the victim that society disapproves of the offender’s deed. It reassures the larger society that it vindicates law and upholds several values that are dear to society.

In this framework, punishment is seen as an end in itself. Very few punishment systems seek to change the offender’s behaviour and help him to a new path. Studies show that 66% of those in the US set free after serving a prison sentence will be rearrested within three years. That figure is close to 60% in the UK, rising to 70% for those who have served at least two previous sentences. Studies in Canada show that more than 30% of those who drive under the influence of alcohol are repeat offenders. There is no reason to believe that this trend of repeat offence will be any better in India.

Most repeat crimes today are a game-like scenario where the offender tries several innovative ways to avoid the long arm of the law. Every time he successfully manages to dodge the law, there is a dopamine release that leads to jubilation. This dopamine high leads to an urge to repeat. The few times you get caught, it is seen as being not smart enough. People who are caught and punished are not quietly learning to change their offending behaviour, but they quickly learn how not to get caught the next time.

Can we develop a punishment system whose ultimate end is to change the behaviour of the offender on a sustained basis?

The existing system of punishments is a rational game where the focus is on restoring a semblance of balance between the criminal and the victim. In this process, the role of emotions, which can trigger behavioural change, is completely ignored. Organized religion, on the other hand, has done a good job in inducing behavioural change by including repentance as an integral part of correcting a wrong act.

By not taking the “guilty" plea to the logical next step of repentance, the legal system misses a huge opportunity to drive behavioural change in the offender. Current punishment systems, which focus on the plea and on the quantum of punishment, tend to elicit shame in the perpetrator rather than guilt. While shame and guilt are often conflated, these emotions differ significantly in their antecedents and action tendencies. Shame triggers an action tendency of withdrawal, whereas guilt triggers an action tendency of reparation.

Today, for most wrongdoings, ranging from jumping a traffic signal to spitting in public places to driving under the influence of alcohol, the punishment is almost always an economic one, monetary fines. Economic disincentives tend to trigger cognitive evaluations of non-conformity. Can we change the disincentive to trigger more emotional evaluation, say, by making the punishment meted out the exact opposite of the reward he was seeking through this wrong act?

A person jumps a red signal because he wants to avoid the certain and immediate loss of having to wait for few seconds, or simply because most others are doing it. As a punishment, the reckless drivers should be asked to undertake a task that consumes a lot of time. Instead of monetary fines, more “reward killing" punishments could create stronger impact in the wrongdoer’s brain.

In medieval times, both the judicial process and the punishments were almost always public. Public confessions of guilt and open expressions of remorse were the order of the day. Today, the whole legal and punishment processes have moved into the confines of a courtroom. The possibility of public humiliation is a powerful tool which need not be precluded from the justice system.

Getting a person to make a commitment is one of the surest ways to inculcate new behaviour. Can the new punishment system seek a commitment from the offender that he will not repeat his crime?

Studies have shown that public commitments given in writing, and made to significant people, can have a strong impact on one’s behaviour—a technique mastered by the Chinese, who went about “re-educating" American prisoners of war using simple commitment devices during the Korean war.

All of us have multiple personalities. A person might have a dishonest identity as far as paying tax is concerned. But the same person will have an honest identity as well, say, when it comes to being a good parent to his children. Can the new punishment system identify the most appropriate identity which triggers the required behavioural change?

The punishment system we use today is centuries old. In the last few years, new knowledge from the world of cognitive neuroscience and behavioural economics has provided lots of new learnings about human behaviour. It’s time we reform punishment systems, using this knowledge, and bring in models that have sustained behavioural change as the end point.

Biju Dominic is the chief executive officer of Final Mile Consulting, a behaviour architecture firm.

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