Metiria Turei

Don’t punish beneficiaries, reward them

This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…

Behavioural reinforcement can be a dry topic. Which is why my favourite book on the topic is called “Don’t Shoot the Dog.” It points out the problem with punishment: the end point – when, for instance, training a dog – is to shoot the dog. No more bad behaviour, but also, problematically, no more dog.

The author also makes the bold claim that cats are also trainable, which I’m not so sure about.

Anyway, how we apply punishment and rewards is a part of day to day life. From families (do you put your child in time out, use sticker charts, or ground them?) all the way through to welfare policies, such as benefit sanctions.

How we set about changing people’s behaviour at a population level is certainly more complicated than how we respond to a child’s bad behaviour. Although some policies make it seem like it’s not. In fact, it can feel like some people would quite like to be able to put the naughty poor people in time out.

Because as a country we do love punishment.

The main problem with punishment though is it doesn’t work that well. Even though it feels like it should, partly because it feels satisfying to see out.

From a training point of view, punishment seems like it works because in the immediate face of a fearful consequence, most of us listen. But what if what’s being asked of us is unreasonable, and something more important trumps the rule such as survival, family, love?

Then we do what is instinctively right: We survive.

This is why the cat still gets up on the kitchen bench no matter how much you scold it, and then jumps off as it hears you enter the room. Cats instinctively like high places and will only jump down when punishment is imminent.

What works much better than punishment is, of course, reward. Most people think of being rewarded as receiving something good, but the removal of something unpleasant is just as rewarding.

Importantly though, there is also what we call “intrinsic rewards”. We don’t need to reward behaviour that naturally feels good, or punish behaviour that is clearly linked with feeling bad. The reward just happens.

The current welfare system rests on the offensive – and wrong – assumption that being on a benefit itself is rewarding. That to make it too comfortable is to allow people to languish on state assistance. It ignores the fact that being on a benefit is intrinsically unpleasant, and improving one’s circumstances rewarding.

So quite apart from the fact that I find benefit sanctions morally repugnant, I also don’t see how you can make any rational argument in favour of them that doesn’t rely solely on entrenched prejudice against those reliant, for whatever reason, on state welfare.

To believe in the need to punish people struggling to keep their head above water, to feed their children, to pay the rent, is to assume that they possess no natural desire to better their situation: It is to blame the victim of circumstance for their circumstances.

And it’s no surprise people find it hard to engage with WINZ. Missing appointments may very well be subject to sanctions, but actually attending appointments at any WINZ office is so inherently punishing we’re literally training people out of engaging in the system.

Perhaps that’s the real point.

And this is why despite yesterdays events, I still stand with Metiria: Because if punishing those who are struggling to care for their families is the Kiwi way, then it’s time to change the Kiwi way.

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