24 April 2009

The Illusion of Punishment

This article takes an interesting look at how we tend to think of punishment as an obvious solution but then have to reverse ourselves when it turns out to be an absurd abuse of the dignity of those who are punished.

"The key finding of this study is that people fail to recognize that the deterrence policy will violate their intuition of justice until after they see it in practice." That is, we like the idea of zero tolerance and don't realize how unfairly it can treat people until we are slapped in the face with the disproportionate results of what at first seemed like a clear and simple policy.

In the end, the psychologist concludes, "when it comes to introspection, we are all 'strangers to ourselves.'"

The professor asked participants about a case like a real one in which a 13-year-old girl shared a Midol pill with a friend at school to relieve the friend's menstrual cramps. The 13-year-old was expelled for violating a school rule against distributing drugs. The survey asked whether expulsion or student-parent conferences with a guidance counselor would be the better response to such an incident. Once they heard the details of the Midol case, fully 88 percent of those who had earlier endorsed the idea of a zero tolerance policy reversed themselves.

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