If you really, really want a child to stay away from something, what kind of punishment should you set? It's possible a light punishment would be a better idea than a heavy one. It's called the "insufficient punishment effect," and it works by combining deceitfulness and reverse psychology.

Two psychologists ran an experiment during which they left preschool children alone with a toy, but only after forbidding them to play with that toy. Some of the children were told that if they played with the toy while the psychologists were away, they would receive a light punishment. Others were told they would receive a more severe punishment.

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Neither group played with the toys while the researchers were away. When the researchers came back, and the children were allowed to play with the toy again, both groups did play with the forbidden toy some of the time. The group that had been threatened with the harsher punishment played with the toy a great deal more than the group that had been threatened with the light one.

The researchers believe that the light punishment, combined with the child obeying the rule, caused the children to scale back their own interest. The children who were threatened with the light punishment didn't feel such a light penalty should have dissuaded them from playing with the toy while the researcher was away. They still wanted to avoid the punishment, though, so they left the toy alone and convinced themselves that they weren't that interested in it in the first place. While I recognize that this happens in adults - we convince ourselves we don't really want something that would be inconvenient to have - it seems a pretty advanced concept for four-year-olds. It also seems like something that could backfire spectacularly.

Parents, what do you think? Have you tried this?

Image: Ernst Vikne.

[Via Effect of the Severity of Threat on the Devaluation of Forbidden Behavior.]

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