We learn best from unjust punishment We shouldn’t punish people for accidents. What purpose would that serve? But one study suggests that it would actually be a very effective practice. Here's why we might want to be Draconian in our punishments.

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If someone was trying to help you, but screwed up, what would you do to them? Would it be better or worse than someone who was trying to hurt you but actually helped? Most of us would be neutral towards the person whose intentions were kind and would punish the person whose intentions were unkind. This seems more just. Anyone can make a mistake, right? What purpose does punishing honest error serve?

It turns out, doling out punishment for silly accidents serves a specific purpose – it learns ‘em not to screw up again. And it does so effectively. This idea was demonstrated in one study that had a group of students playing darts. One student chucked the dart at a multi-colored board, and either won or lost money for the other student. Hitting certain colors earned the other player money, while hitting others lost the other player money. The non-thrower had control of a stock of money for the player. If the other player earned them money, they could reward them by supplementing it or punish them by depleting it. Sounds like both players could clean up, right?

The problem was, the thrower didn’t know which colors would earn the non-thrower money. The non-thrower knew, but the participants were forbidden from communicating freely with each other. The non-thrower could only punish or reward them for each throw. More confusingly, the thrower had to call out their intended color before each throw. Since few of the students were natural dart players, they didn’t always hit their intended color. If, for example, the thrower aimed for a money-winning color, but hit a money-losing color, what was the other student to do? Should they reward them for trying to hit the winning color, or punish them for actually hitting the losing color?

If you would have rewarded the person’s noble intentions, you would have lost more money than your more vindictive counterparts. The “non-throwing” participant in the study was actually a researcher. In half the trials, the researchers only rewarded and punished the stated intentions. In half the trials, the researcher only rewarded and punished the results. In the trials during which the throwers were punished for bad results and rewarded for good ones, regardless of their intentions, they learned twice as fast. Getting burned whenever you touch the stove, regardless of your intentions, does get results.

Or, at least, it gets results in a trial sustained over a limited time, during which the punishments aren’t severe and other means of communication aren’t an option. Clearly, there is something in our psychology that responds to immediate and unambiguous reactions to our actions. This might be why we have the urge to be angry with someone who, while they have all the good intentions in the world, makes our lives more difficult while they are trying to be nice. Still, it would have been interesting if the study could have been extended and the participants asked if they wanted to earn more money for the person who docked their pay for well-intentioned mistakes. Efficiency at any cost in one matter can lead to inefficiency in another.

Via Future Science