Disincentives and Deterrents, or How to Avoid Rewarding Bad Behavior

Amid all the buzz about perverse incentives that backfire, lessons about punishments that reward undesirable performance should be shared, too.

A former warden of Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary taught me an important lesson about perverse disincentives and effective deterrents some years ago. (No, I was NOT one of his inmates.) As as we worked together on a project for a different federal agency, he shared his practical findings about negative reinforcement learned while trying to reduce misbehavior among the most dangerous prisoners in the nation.

The dilemma the warden faced was simple: Many of the inmates under his supervision were already facing a lifetime in prison and had a “nothing to lose” attitude about rules.

Changing the punishment, creating more disincentives

The traditional remedy for serious offenses was solitary confinement. This most severe punishment earned them positive feedback in the form of greater respect from fellow convicts. Being sent to “solitary” was a mark of distinction, showing a level of toughness that won approval in the machismo permeated atmosphere of the maximum-security prison.

Other inmates felt that offenders who could endure weeks without human contact, living on bread and water, deserved admiration and approbation. They were honored and respected by their fellow cons for enduring what all considered harsh treatment.

The intended punishment created a rewarding experience. A month on bread and water in solitary was a perverse incentive. The admiration it produced increased the probability that the offender would repeat the undesirable behavior the punishment was intended to extinguish.

The warden made a few simple changes to disrupt the inverted perverse consequences of being sent to “the hole.” Prisoners in solitary confinement were issued fluffy pink pajamas and fed oatmeal porridge and milk. When they emerged from the new conditions of their “hard time,” they were met with smirks and ridicule.

Recidivism rates plummeted dramatically. Being babied like unruly children in a manner that lowered their status in prison had a much stronger corrective effect on their subsequent behavior than the classic old treatment. Their status in the eyes of fellow convicts was much more important to them than the discomfort of solitary confinement.

Losing prestige was more painful than being denied human contact. Mental punishment was more motivating than physical punishment.

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Human nature rarely changes

Aversion therapy will never be as popular as giveaway programs, but it still may have a valid place in our toolboxes.

Skepticism is justified, however, since there are so darn many situations where perverse disincentives occur.

Bad behavior is frequently rewarded in one way or another by “punishments” that create more positives than negatives, in the eyes of the performers. A day can hardly pass without some “pop-icon celebrity” exciting their fan base by some outrageous illegal action that brings them publicity in the form of “news.”

Those who grew up before the 1946 Disney movie Song of the South became politically incorrect may not know the old story about the briar patch, but that folklore lesson still applies here, today. Familiar examples may change over time, but human nature rarely does.

What other success stories can you tell about effective disincentives?

This was originally published at the Compensation Café blog, where you can find a daily dose of caffeinated conversation on everything compensation.

E. James (Jim) Brennan is Senior Associate of ERI Economic Research Institute, the premier publisher of interactive pay and living-cost surveys. Semi-retired after over 40 years in HR corporate and consulting roles throughout the U.S. and Canada, he’s pretty much been there done that (articles, books, speeches, seminars, radio/TV, advisory posts, in-trial expert witness stuff, etc.), and will express his opinion on almost anything. Contact him at ej.brennan@erieri.com.

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