On altruistic punishment

Often when I speak with staff in care, psychiatry or schools they describe that they have been forced to lead a person away or to restrain someone in order to protect the others. Often, but not always, they are aware that the person they handled didn’t benefit from the intervention, but they did it for the benefit of the others. It is often argued that it was the right thing to do and that it was impossible to do otherwise.

Punishing a person to protect others are in psychological and philosophical science called altruistic punishment. The most common altruistic punishment is to make somebody leave. Maybe the pupil from the classroom (or from school for a week), maybe the service user from the common room, maybe the psychiatric patient from open wards to secure units. Mechanical restraints as used in psychiatric care often have the same theme.

We know that punishment doesn’t lower the behaviour that we punish in the person that we punish. The behaviour often escalates instead. But we still use altruistic punishment because it is for the benefit of the others. Often without it leading to us changing the factors that trigged the behaviour that we punish. Example:

A person in a residential unit wants to decide which tv-show is on in the common room. Three other residents want to watch another show. They want to watch the news. The first person becomes loud and starts to roam around the room shouting. He calls them news fascists. The staff tries to clam everybody down, but fails. The staff then asks the loud person to leave the common room and watch his show in his own room. All in order to create a nice calm atmosphere in the common room.

The person who is asked to leave the common room lives in the residential unit. He has the right to be in the common room. It’s part of what he pays for. He lives in the residential unit because he needed special care and have the right to that special care because of a disability. But staff think that they are entitled to take away that right because he didn’t behave. The philosopher Rawls said that society isn’t regulated in law but in the contracts that we have with each other. The most obvious is:

If you behave, I behave. I you don’t behave i will loose my respect for your rights

The problem with Rawls’ way of thinking is that it only applies to people of equal rights. It works great in traffic, for example. In traffic we all agree that it is ok to drive a little too fast (we never report other people to the police for passing us just 5 miles an hour too fast). But if someone drives 100 miles an hour too fast we might report him. Because he shouldn’t have a driver’s licence!

The philosopher Martha Nussbaum Thinks that Rawls’ thinking isn’t applicable to people who are not equal.One of her examples is people with disabilities. If you live in a residential unit you are not part of the ordinary society. You don’t have the same rights to autonomy and decision as others have. You have other rights instead. One of the rights that you have is the right to live in a residential unit for people with disabilities. But this also means that staff and residents aren’t equal. Which makes Rawls’ contract obsolete. Actually the resident doesn’t have to behave.

When staff asks the resident to go to his own room or flat they do it because they haven’t understood the concept of inequality. Which means that their interventions is unethical and in many countries an illegal limitation of the resident’s rights. Even if it is in order to protect the other residents.

There are two interesting research areas in altruistic punishment. The first is what happens on the personal level when we punish and the second is which evolutionary mechanisms are behind the tendency to punish.

In the first area the Swiss neurophysiologist Dominique de Quervain and his collegues have looked into what happens in our brains when we use altruistic punishments. They published an an article on the subject in 2005. They didn’t look into the effects of altruistic punishmenst but into what neural mechanisms are involved. And they found something amazing. They could show that the one punishing experienced a feeling of wellbeing and reward that could even be measured in an increased level of dopamine and activity in the dorsal striatum (the reward centre of the brain).
Behaviourists often say that we should be careful not to use aversive methods because they are self rewarding and might lead to us punishing because it feels great, not because it works. That is just what de Quervain and his collegues’ research showed. We punish by telling the person to watch tv in his own room because it feels great.

Another result of their research was that apparently the tendency to punish differs between people. Some punish more often than others. The frightening reason for that difference is that the level of reward differs on a neurophysiological level. Some people just get bigger kicks out of punishing than others.

The second area of interest is why we humans have this mechanism. What function did it have in an evolutionary context to develop a tendency to ask the ones that doesn’t behave to leave? Gintis and Boyd have in different cooperations looked into that. They have been able to show that it is tendency we share with other animals who live together in oacks. They describe what they call the evolutionary base of altruistic punishment. A couple of interesting articles are Gintis et al and Boyd.

They describe that animals who live in packs are depending on each other. We survive through coorporation, what demands that everybody does his part. If somebody does not do his part of the work we might all get in trouble. Maybe somebody’s lack of coorportion endangers our survival. Think about a small village in the country 1000 years ago, where people farm the land together. Everybody is in some way or other related, and everybody works. When everything is harvested next year’s seeds are mixed in order to avoid genetic diseases in the seeds. If someone in the village hasn’t done a good job farming they might not have enough food left in the winter. They might steal from next year’s seeds. In the same way someone could always sleep through their guarding duty, thereby threatening the survival of the entire village. That person would be expelled from the village. And this is the evolutionary mechanism behind expelling somebody from the common room in the residential unit or the pupil from school. If we expell the one that endagers our survival we survive better, thereby strengthening the mechanism a little by every generation. The groups of people in the millions of years of hunters-gathering and thousands of years of poor village farming life that didn’t expell the moron more often died.

But we do not live as hunters and gatherers. We do not farm the land together as a village. We live mostly in cities. But we still expell the people that we think are not behaving into special schools, prisons, residential units for people with disabilities and into psychiatric care. But when we then inside those places expell the person yet further it becomes contra productive. Because the person is here again tomorrow. He will probably not endanger our survival, but he might have a harder time behaving because we expelled him before. Altruistic punishment might be easy to understand but i still destroys the alliance we so desperately need in order to make a good life for the person we are put in charge of.