Crying Infant; Screaming Parent

It is funny how little incidents reminds us of more general principles… Today, when I went to the store, there was a baby that was crying, and it’s mother kept going, “be quiet now!”, “sit down!”, “hush!” in a real angry voice (the dog-peed-on-the-rug-voice). The whole thing just reminded me of two funny things from cognitive science:

  • Punishment is actually a very ineffective way of teaching. Indeed some researchers believe that punishment is purely counterproductive. The learner develops a feeling of helplessness and dislike for the learning experience, shutting down all possibility of real learning. Nevertheless, this is seldom taken into consideration in learning situations.
  • People are biased against realising the ineffectivety of using punishment for teaching. An important mechanism behind this is the effect known as “Regression towards the mean”. Basically, when you look at a series of random data, any exceptional data will statistically tend to be followed with less exceptional data, simply because of the definition of exceptional as deviating from the mean. In plain words, if someone is acting exceptionally good at one instant, they will tend to act less good later; if someone is acting exceptionally bad they will tend to act less bad later. This is a purely statistical result, and has nothing to do with behaviour per se. The way this is perceived is that if you punish bad behaviour (or react to it in any way), it will seem like you reaction is stopping the bad behaviour; if you reward good behaviour (or indeed react to it in any way), you will perceive your behaviour as influencing the subject to behave less good. Again, these effects have nothing with the behaviour of the subject, but purely with your own perception of what is statistically normal. (An additional effect may be that we tend to overestimate the effect we have on others)

That said, I am not a parent. And I probably would be just as bad of a parent as everybody else. Knowing about these tings don’t stop me from yelling at the dog when she climbs up on the sofa…

Copyright © 2003 Johannes Brodwall. All Rights Reserved.

About Johannes Brodwall

Johannes is Principal Software Engineer in SopraSteria. In his spare time he likes to coach teams and developers on better coding, collaboration, planning and product understanding.
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