Aversive Control: A biological and evolutionary perspective. Part 1

 Punishment is generally considered the human application of naturally occurring forces that influence behavior. That’s about all you can say about the subject before hitting a fork in the road: the traditional, colloquial use of the term and the attempts by science to describe the phenomenon. Both roads, guided by good intentions, lead to perdition.

The human use of punishment predates history. Merely existing as humans sets the stage for manipulating the environment, including the people around us. It is instinctive for humans to hit, strike, push, shove, tug, slap and kick. We do these things to gather food, build fires, construct shelters, hunt and defend ourselves. Children offer these behaviors unbidden, across history and throughout the globe – with or without benefit of observing them first. These behaviors are part of the natural repertoire of humans and occur from early age in our attempt to survive and live in a hostile environment. In common parlance, human violence is instinctive, adaptive and obviously beneficial to survival. Violence turned toward other humans is equally beneficial when applied correctly. This violence is often beneficial to both parties. (More about this, later) That’s the rub. There is nothing in modern behavioral science that would come to this conclusion yet this scenario is an evolutionary fact that can be observed everywhere, throughout history. Only behavioral scientists seem to miss this point.

Contrary to the assertion of behavior analysts, educators and psychologists, the most common result of hitting is, in fact, a reduction in violence. As the other person no longer attempts to steal your meat, you have no reason to continue to punish him. As he is not trying to steal your meat because of your application of punishment, he has no opportunity to use violence. You and the thief may need each other as a part of the survival of the tribe. Because of the need for group strength, social animals do not benefit from needless or excessive violence. They learn to moderate their punishment in what a behavior analyst would describe as “contingent punishment.” If you do X you are punished. If you do not do X, you do not get punished. Those who are indiscriminately violent are usually checked by coalitions of tribe-mates who gang-up on the bully and either beat him to a pulp or drive him from the group. (You will note that these primitive vigilantes use “hitting” as the primary means of suppressing violence. Logically, the result of “hitting” is group harmony.) However, constant knock-down battles are not beneficial for society and minute doses of punishment as infants create inhibitions to violence that benefit all.

“It is interesting to note that most socialized individuals have already learned not to attack those who may use punishment legitimately, because they have been punished for such attacks in the past. Indeed, if socialization were not the rule but were rather the exception, we might expect that every person given a speeding ticket would kick, punch, or bite the police officer or that an employee docked for tardiness would attack his or her supervisor…Similarly, most children do not attack their parents when they are punished for some wrongdoing. We can speculate that those who do, have probably never been effectively punished for such behavior.” Dr. Ron Van Houten, The Effects of Punishment on Human Behavior, Saul Axerod and Jack Apsche, Academic Press, 1983.

It is evident that civilization is dependent on social punishment to suppress innate human violence, theft and vandalism — in limited settings. This is a criterion driven rule – the same violence that is inappropriate when aimed at an innocent neighbor is required when the tribe defends itself against marauders. No complete ban on violence is desirable or beneficial. This context driven ethos is not limited to violence. Stealing from your neighbor leads to problems within the community. Stealing from a neighboring tribe is beneficial, accepted and rewarded. The nature of human society requires the selective use of punishment that inhibits specific behaviors in specific settings. This has been the goal for many millennia. The fact that all civilizations use some form of punishment to suppress anti-social behavior proves the critical nature of its retention as a social tool. If it wasn’t functional, it would have stopped long ago.

Along with internecine uses for punishment, the act of hunting reveals the effectiveness of aversive control. A common tool for group hunting involves “beaters” who make noise and “beat” the bush to drive prey into a trap or a waiting group of hunters. (This may be the origin of the domestication of food animals. Herd them into a corral and then prod and punish to create tractable animals.) It is illogical to think that humans who successfully use aversive control on the hunt and have instinctive tendencies to hit and strike would not understand the use of punishment and negative reinforcement to control the behavior of those around them. When the hunter comes home from the hunt, he doesn’t forget that pushing, shoving, tugging and striking can drive people as well as animals. If someone is messing with his meat, after the kill, he will strike to defend his territory and property. Dragging someone by the hair is a cartoon cliché in modern society and a very practical way of immobilizing someone in the real world. If dragging someone by the hair punishes inappropriate behavior or negatively reinforces appropriate behavior, it will be repeated. The common rule of survival is to pay attention to things that can hurt or help you and learn to recreate appropriate reactions to either circumstance.

A biological perspective on punishment:
While it has long been speculated that cruelty is an innate quality of humans, I think that is not an accurate statement. I believe that humans are autonomous, social animals who must live in groups to survive. The nature of corralling groups of highly violent creatures requires that each individual survive independently and collectively, simultaneously. One behavior that leads to violence is possession and preservation of needed resources. The emotional reaction connected with saved food is one of well-being and comfort. The threat of losing saved food triggers an opposite emotional response – anxiety and fear. In most cases, robbery triggers protective aggression. The emotion is a reaction to external stimuli that occasions several possible behaviors: flight, freeze or fight. This is common in the animal world as well as in humans.

Unacknowledged by behavior analysts, this is the path to a true coercion free society – it’s called capitalism. No one is coerced into work or trading they do not accept voluntarily. Ironically, the underpinnings of free association require coercion and suppression in the form of punishment for anti-social behaviors. This is best done in small, controlled applications when the human is young. “Don’t call someone a bad name” is best done when the child is learning to say bad names. Doing it when they are strong, adaptable adults is far more difficult.

Note: The root of the word stimulus is from the Greek word “to goad or prod.” The next time you hear someone use the word stimulus to imply a pleasant outcome consider the odd contradiction of a pleasant goad or prod.

To read the series, use these links
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6

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