Do kids FEAR punishment?

School is officially around the corner already this week some of my conversations with parents, teachers and school administrators have centered upon punishment to stem some unwanted behaviors.  Whether it’s tardy to school, failure to pick-up your children after events, turning in assignments, improving test scores, making kids take test, getting parents to pay school fees on time, the list is endless and the script we use is always the same….determine a punishment (often a draconian big punishment) to get motivation for students or adults to do the something we want. We have this belief that if we threaten some punishment that will motivate students, teachers or parents to do something we want them to do…..and we believe this works.


Fear of punishment is not a motivator. Sorry to burst every one’s bubble….but fear of punishment has never motivated people or students.  We humans are not simple stimulus-response, we are much more complicated —  simple “carrots and sticks” are not effective long-term.  No student says….ohhh I don’t want to be late again because I fear a detention and/or suspension.  No teacher says…..ohhh I better work super, super hard this year because my job or bonus depends on student achievement.  What ceases to amaze me, is that people will attribute the tweaking of a punishment if the behavior ceases as a success, when it might not have anything to do with the fear of punishment.

I suspect that some of the reason we believe the punishment worked is because it invoked what Economist call  “loss aversion.”  We hate losing something and many researchers claim this is more powerful than gaining something.   The real reason the student does not want to be late is the potential to lose “privileges” like the use of the family car, recess, personal freedom, loss of respect from adults or other students.  Sitting in detention which is the punishment is not the deterrent — yet we think it stopped the behavior if the student is not late again.  Schools need to learn more about how this powerful aversion to loss can have an impact on how kids and other adults perform and behave in school.

I once had a teacher that told my entire class we all had “A’s.” That if the class ended today we all had an “A.”  He made us write it on the front of our notebooks.  Made us (which we thought was silly) say it to our neighbor sitting next to us.  He showed each of us his grade book with an “A” by our name.  He may not have understood “loss aversion” but he must have experienced that students would work harder to keep the “A” they presume they already have versus the “A” they might get at the end of the nine weeks.

A recent field experiment with Teachers demonstrated this effectively. Researchers published a paper entitled “Enhancing the Efficacy of Teacher Incentives through Loss Aversion: A Field Experiment. (2012)”   They divided 150 teachers into three groups. One group was given an upfront $4,000 bonus and told if scores don’t improve they have to give some if not all the money back.  The second group was told if student test scores go up each of you will receive a $4,000 bonus.  The third group was promised nothing. The results were surprising.  The teachers who received the money upfront outperformed the two other groups by a substantial margin.  The fear of losing something that is already mine is a big motivator and at least in this case it was a bigger motivator than a potential gain at the end of the process.

I have watched grown adults go crazy if they are charged a late fee even if its for a small amount.  They will spend time on the phone, pleading their case to get the fee reversed.  At the same time, they throw away the rebate opportunities because it requires them to spend time online or mail something into the company. Often the rebates are larger than the late fees. Our fear of losing something we already have is a very powerful motivator.

I am not advocating we employ performance based pay based on test scores, in fact, I have previously blogged that is a bad idea.  What I am saying, is our view of punishment may need revised.  Notwithstanding our consistent failure to address the root of the problem when considering behaviors of students or adults, we often — wrongly believe the fear of said punishment makes students behave.  We need to focus more attention to loss aversion and less attention to punishments to truly get the behaviors we want.


About James Herrholtz

Consultant, Teacher, Coach, Administrator for over 23 years. I have been a superintendent of schools, College Instructor, and worked at the Ohio Department of Education heading up the Division of Learning.
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