Article 3B: When a Positive Consequence Is Not Positive By Kerby T. Alvy Ph.D.
One word of caution is in order before we leave the topic of positive consequences. One man’s meat may well be another man’s poison. Let’s take the case of the well-meaning but unliberated husband as an example. Lately, it seems that his wife has been getting up early on weekends to cook him up a scrumptious breakfast, and boy, does he like that behavior! Knowing full well that this behavior is more likely to continue if it’s rewarded, hubby figures that he’d better get on the stick and do something nice for his wife in return. So he decides to take her out to a hockey game. Bad choice – this is not a positive consequence to her: she hates hockey. A big hug and a kiss after breakfast not only would have been a bit more appropriate, but also would have gone a lot further toward inspiring his wife to keep on cooking those great breakfasts for him.
The Concept of Punishment and Corrective Consequences
John Doe has a plane to catch. Because he’s afraid he might be late, he decides to hurry. Tooling around the highway at well over 90 miles per hour, a number of interesting things can happen to John Doe.
He might make it to the airport in time to catch his flight. No problem. All is well. Driving too fast has produced the positive consequence of catching his flight.
The arresting officer might be in a pretty good mood. Nevertheless, the siren, the flashing red light, and the brief lecture on traffic safety scare the hell out of John Doe, and on top of everything he misses his plane. In this instance, driving too fast has not paid off; it’s been punished and corrected.
The arresting officer might have had a spat with his wife, and now he’s in an ugly mood. Consequently, John Doe ends up with a ticket and a court appointment before he can say, “But, Officer –“John will lose $125 and a day of work – and of course, he also misses his plane. Again, the behavior of driving too fast has been punished and corrected.
John Doe has a bone-jarring collision with a 6-ton truck. For sure, he will miss his plane and he’ll probably miss tomorrow as well. To say that his driving too fast has been punished and corrected in this instance would be an understatement.
We have just looked at four possible consequences for driving fast. The first was positive; the other three were punishing and negative. Such punishment and negativity are the opposites of positive consequences.
Whereas having a positive consequence follow a behavior makes it more likely to occur again, a behavior that is followed by a punishing, negative consequence is less likely to recur in the future, i.e., it is “corrected” in the sense of being less likely to happen again. Thus, punishments or negative consequences are considered to be corrective in nature.
Also, just as positive consequences come in a wide assortment of shapes and sizes, so to do corrective consequences. Our beleaguered John Doe was scared, scolded, delayed, fined, and physically injured for speeding. As a result, he will probably think twice before driving so fast again, at least in the immediate future.
Now think for a moment or two about some of the ways children receive a negative or corrective consequences for their misdeeds. Some are scolded; some are shook or spanked; some lose privileges; some forfeit their allowances; some are hollered at or berated; some are sent to their rooms. There is a multitude of ways to correct behavior, yet there is one common theme. Corrective consequences are intended to decrease the chances that the misbehavior will happen again.
The use of spanking and other physically punishing corrective consequences are special instances that deserve extensive consideration and discussion as they constitute physical violence against children. Such a discussion is contained in a prior series of articles on why We Must Stop Hitting Our Children!. Click here to find that series.
The next and last article in this current Series will deal with when punishment and corrective consequences do not work.