The respected journal Science will publish tomorrow a research study that suggests that the threat of punishment can keep people from getting in trouble. Stop the presses!
You’d think that this might have been studied before. But previous studies (focusing on freeloading vs. pro-social behavior) only focused on short-term outcomes. This new study, on the other hand, found in the long term the threat of punishment becomes deeply embedded in people’s subconscious, so that they come to fear getting in trouble.
You’d think this might have been too obvious to require study. But as Karl Sigmund of the University of Vienna explained to LiveScience.com, “the experimental work is extremely important and timely, as many researchers had voices concern whether punishment is not too costly a tool to promote cooperation.”
Clearly punishment isn’t the only tool out there to affect people’s behavior. Socialization, community involvement, and positive inducements are all strong factors. But we’re going to go out on a limb and say that, until something else comes along that satisfies society’s need for deterrence, removal (and, sadly, retribution), punishment’s going to remain part of our toolbox for a long long time.
[The research was performed by a team led by Simon Gächter at the University of Nottingham.]