Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

‘The father of modern Forensic Psychology’

I would like to work in prisons and ultimately advice parliament on the criminal justice system, to completely change the prison system because Sentencing people to prison to be ‘punished’ for a specific period of time, DOES NOT WORK. One interesting paper, which will be of great value to this argument is McQuire’s (2002) analyses of criminal sanctions versus psychologically-based interventions with offenders. This is what McQuire has to say:

Given almost unanimous acceptance of a necessary and desirable link between ‘crime and punishment’… punitive sanctions… the community’s required response to criminal conduct… (and) the mainstay of criminal justice intervention… appear not to have the desired impact of positive behavior change.’

There are several reasons why this is the case but from an applied behavioural analysis (ABA) point of view one is clearly of particular interest: aversive punishment. McQuire explains
that positive reinforcement has consistently been shown to be a much more reliable method of behavior change than aversive conditioning. Punishment-based techniques can be effective but McQuire argues that certain necessary conditions cannot be met in the real world. These include: punishment must be inevitable, administered immediately after the crime and applied with high-to-maximum severity.

The necessity of these factors from a behavior analytic standpoint is that partial reinforcement (possibly avoiding prison) is not strong enough to prevent criminal behavior. A comparison can be made with gambling where the chance of loosing money is not enough to dissuade people, because there is a chance of winning. Furthermore, in order for a punishment to be directly connected with a specific behavior and to avoid confusion, the punishment must occur straight afterwards. Finally, the punishment must be severe enough to overcome the advantages of the behavior for the individual and to dissuade them from performing it.

Even if these conditions were met for many reasons including moral and practical ones, it is simply not good enough to tell someone that there life is of no value to anyone anymore, which is effectively what life sentences to prison mean. Consequently, there may be some interventions which can, not only benefit the individual criminal, but also society as a whole: after all with the right help such individuals can be just as valuable to society as any of us.

As such in his paper, McQuire likewise notes this possibility and he is especially positive about cognitive-behavioral approaches such as ABA. While there haven’t yet been any specific reviews of the applied behavioral analysis interventions, this is something I hope to investigate particularly within the context of illegal drug use.

For many, drug use (behavior) seems the only option to solve a deep-seated inability to cope with life (source of behavior) and that first experience of release that drugs offer, acts as a strong reinforcement. Surely therefore, by addressing this source with some sort of intervention, the behavior itself can be with dealt with because punishment is completely ineffective (Tiffany, 1990). This is after all what the government is there for, to service people who need it, and this example is but one of many of how the current criminal justice system fails.

McGuire, J. (2002). Criminal sanctions versus psychologically-based interventions with offenders: A comparative empirical analysis. Psychology, Crime and Law, 8, 183-208.

Tiffany, S. T. (1990). A cognitive model of drug urges and drug-use behavior: role of automatic and non-automatic processes. Psychological review, 97, 147.

Steven Cass

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