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.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Rewarding the guilty

Punishment and reinforcement are principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis, and are so engrained in our society that we use them daily without thinking. Everybody knows that the naughty child sits on the naughty step, the criminals go to prison, and the little girl who helps her mother clean the house gets an ice-cream. They are so frequently used that often, we don’t even think about why they work, we just know that they do.

The principles are based on the work of Skinner (1938), and Thorndike’s ‘Law of Effect’ (Thorndike, 1927): that the likelihood of a behaviour occurring in a given situation depends on what the consequences that behaviour has previously had. So, if the behaviour had a positive outcome it is more likely to occur again, and if it had negative consequences, it is less likely to occur.
The aim of Applied Behaviour Analysis is to alter the frequency with which a target behavior occurs. One method of achieving this is via positive reinforcement- reinforce the target behaviour that you want to increase the frequency of. This technique is probably used less in daily life than it should be. Instead of reinforcing the good behaviours, we tend to punish the bad ones. Positive reinforcement can be just as effective, however, and is nicer for everyone involved.

I want to work in the criminal justice system in the future and one interesting way in which this technique could be used is in police interrogation settings, particularly when interviewing psychopaths. Research has shown that psychopaths are unresponsive to punishment, as they do not show a fear response to aversive stimuli, unlike controls (Lykken, 1968) and so in trying to get information from them, threatening them is unlikely to be effective. However, Newman, Kosson, and Patterson (1992) found that low-anxious psychopaths are responsive to positive reinforcement, and so this is likely to be the best technique to use in controlling their behavior. Therefore, when trying to obtain more information about a crime, or others that were involved, it may be more beneficial to offer deals or more lenient sentences, or some kind of positive reinforcement than to threaten longer and more severe punishments, as that doesn’t work. Subtly rewarding the psychopath for any useful information they divulge should increase the likelihood that they will divulge even more information. It may seem counterintuitive that rewarding good behaviours is more effective than punishing the bad behaviors in psychopathic criminals, but whichever method affects their behavior in the target direction is the one that should be used.

This technique shouldn’t be extensively with children and non-psychopathic criminals however, as it has been shown to increase rates of false confession (Billings et al., 2007).

Hannah Thomas


Billings, F. J., Taylor, T., Burns, J., Corey, D. L., Garven, S., & Wood, J. M. (2007). Can reinforcement induce children to falsely incriminate themselves? Law and Human Behaviour, 31, 125-139.

Lykken, D. T. (1968). Statistical significance in psychological research. Psychological Bulletin, 70(3), 151-159.

Newman, J. P., Kosson, D. S., & Patterson, C. M. (1992). Delay of gratification in Psychopathic and Nonpsychopathic offenders. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 4, 630-636.

Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms, an experimental analysis.

Thorndike, E. L. (1927). The law of effect. The American Journal of Psychology.

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