What Is Punishment?

“An eye for an eye” is one of the strongest human instincts—and one that can be difficult for both individuals and societies to overcome—but decades of psychological evidence show that reciprocating harm is not always the best course of action. Punishment, when meted out fairly, can work to condition people not to repeat misdeeds, and threats of negative repercussions can act as powerful disincentives.

On the other hand, punishment can easily be subsumed by a desire for revenge, or greatly exceed the offense committed. Over-zealous punishment is rarely an effective deterrent and may cause negative effects that extend beyond the one being punished. A hyper-reactive “tough on crime” position that favors punishment over rehabilitation, for instance, has arguably contributed to an overpopulated prison system with high rates of recidivism.

Punishment has its place—but the ability to rise above baser instincts and judge each situation objectively, and with an eye toward fairness, is one of the highest achievements of humanity and of civilization.

Punishment for Crime

Why do certain people commit criminal acts—some repeatedly—while others remain law-abiding citizens? Often, the answers are closely linked to economic or social circumstances, but in other cases, deeper psychological drivers may be at work—including the different ways people respond to punishment or the threat of punishment.

Some of these responses can be traced to childhood, with evidence suggesting that children who have been subjected to harsh parenting strategies—particularly corporal punishment—are more likely to develop behavioral issues later on, which could be linked to a greater likelihood of involvement with the criminal justice system.


What’s the difference between punishment and revenge? The distinction often lies in the methods or motivations behind people's actions, or in the perceived similarity between the inciting offense and the resulting consequence.

While punishment can be meted out between individuals, within families, or on a societal level, revenge is more often dispensed one-to-one—a man circulating nude pictures of an ex-partner after being dumped, for example. After being wronged, a person’s desire for revenge is natural, but evidence suggests that it rarely helps heal psychological wounds, and instead tends to cause additional, long-lasting problems for everyone involved.


Forgiveness, Passive-Aggression, Anger

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