3 min read/Published On: October 31, 2023/659 words/

The Futility of Punishment

Since our last blog, the theme of punishment has seemed to be a recurring one. There was the report published by the Commons education committee on September 27th, recommending (among other things) that parents of children who are persistently absent from school should be fined as a last resort. And then there was the Moral Maze on Radio 4 (October 18th) on the value of prisons, that once again concluded that punishment is no deterrent.

So, for all sorts of reasons, I’ve been thinking about the value of punishment – particularly as it affects our children in the care system.

Punishment, or the threat of it, is usually regarded as an effective way to promote morality. And it works quite well for children who live in secure and nurturing families. However, research (Smith, K.E., and Pollak, S.D. (2021) in Child Development, 93(3), 804-814) has found that children traumatised by serious maltreatment or neglect in their early life, struggle as young adults to make the sort of good decisions that will keep them safe and out of prison. The problem seems to be that they are unable to accurately assess risk and respond appropriately. So, the authors used gambling simulations, designed to assess the young adults’ responses to risk-taking, reward, and punishment. “We would give them clues as to outcomes,” said Pollak, “such as, ‘When you see this shape, you’re at risk of losing $5.'” Participants’ brain activity was scanned while they completed the activities.

Those from secure backgrounds tended to pay attention to the clues and gamble wisely; those who had suffered significant trauma did not. They would, for instance, choose the shape that they had been warned against—and make the same mistake again and again. They also took a lot of time agonising over decisions – and when they lost, they were visibly upset.

The brain scans of this group showed less-than-usual brain activity during the period of decision-making, and more-than-usual activity in the aftermath. “It makes sense,” Pollak said. “If you didn’t pay attention to the cues indicating that you’re about to lose, you’re more surprised and then upset when you do.”

The study also explored the subjects’ behaviour in real life. They filled out a simple questionnaire about their propensity to drive without a seatbelt, avoid the doctor when ill, drive through red traffic-lights and other risky behaviours. The results mirrored the results of the games: the participants who made poor gambling decisions also made poor life decisions.

Pollak stressed that the findings aren’t related to intelligence or IQ. “It’s more like a learning disability,” he said. “The people were ignoring the signs that most people were taking as a warning. The information isn’t getting processed.” Thus those children who have experienced developmental trauma have grown brains that are wired for survival; in the process of that wiring they appear to have lost the capacity to attend to information that might signal potential risk or loss.

Research shows that the majority of young people involved in the criminal justice system – up to 90% – have experienced trauma in their earlier life. According to the research above, the threat of punishment for such offenders is unlikely to be effective as their brains are unable to engage in that way of processing. So alternatives are needed.

Back to where I started: we know that children need to be in education to maximise life chances but – post-covid – parents are increasingly sceptical about the value of school attendance (persistent absence has more than doubled since before the pandemic). Surely the DfE needs to be focusing efforts on winning parents over and improving mental health services for their children and perhaps widening the provision of free school meals, rather than punishing them with fines? And given the current financial crisis there will be some families where the choice is between food for dinner and bus fare to and from school; a no-brainer for most of us.

Martha and Rachel