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Behavior Modification


by Michael Mitchell

What is law?

Simply put, laws do one thing and one thing only: Provide a penalty for wrongful behavior. In other words, the function of laws (and their attendant police, court, and penal systems) is to punish people, either for doing something they shouldnít or failing to do something they should.

Why do people obey laws? For one or both of two reasons: First, because theyíre lawful people, having been brought up to believe that obedience to the law is the right thing to do. Second, because theyíre afraid of the punishment offered through the law. The first of these factors is obviously only effective on the law-abiding populace (the vast majority of Americans). Criminals, by definition, donít respect the law; they make their living breaking it. So, is the fear of punishment factor enough?

Punishment is a form of behavior modification. Beginning with psychologist R. L. Thorndike, further revised by B. F. Skinner, we have known for over 80 years how to modify the behavior of animals and humans to encourage desired behaviors while discouraging undesirable behavior. The basic principle is this: Behaviors which bring positive consquences will be repeated. Behaviors which bring negative consequences will be extinguished. There are three techniques of behavior modification identified by Skinner and Thorndike:

1) Positive reinforcement (reward): If the subject of the modification performs a desired behavior, a reward is given. Most animal trainers use only this form of modification; witness the offerings of food after the animals perform their tricks. Both Thorndike and Skinner agreed that it is the most effective of the three techniques.

2) Negative reinforcement: The subject is placed in an unpleasant situation, then offered the opportunity to get out of it by performing a desired behavior. An example of negative reinforcement would be forcing a child to sit at the dinner table (an unpleasant situation) until he eats his broccoli (the desired behavior).

3) Punishment: A negative consequence is suffered as a result of an undesirable behavior. Virtually all psychologists agree that punishment is the least effective form of behavior modification. (Now, youíll immediately notice that the legal system provides a punishment for bad behavior - universally accepted to be the least effective behavior modification technique.) Skinner postulated that, in order to have any chance of effectiveness, the punishment offered must have three characteristics:

a) Swiftness (the punishment must closely follow the unwanted behavior in time)
b) Surety (the unwanted behavior must always or almost always be punished)
c) Severity (the punishment must be severe enough to make the subject want to avoid it)

Letís evaluate the effectiveness of the legal system under Skinnerís criteria of being swift, sure, and severe. Our legal system necessarily is not swift (although the system is far slower than it could be). The surety factor is abysmal at best; when you consider the likelihood of being arrested and convicted, youíd be more likely to worry about being run over by a bus than being punished for a crime. (How many times have you driven in excess of the speed limit, and how many tickets have you received? And thatís an offense which only requires a police officerís record of your speed - a relatively easy crime to prosecute.) Finally, the severity factor is often inadequate to the task - witness the prisoners who continue to run successful criminal operations from behind bars. The severity element of prison works better on typical contributing members of society, who are fundamentally nonviolent people, since being caged up with violent psychopaths is the real threat. To the violent criminal, prison isnít much of a threat.

So, if the legal system cannot be relied upon to provide effective punishment for criminal behavior, what can? Armed self-defense against violent criminal attack. Itís definitely swift, as the gun will appear during or immediately after the negative behavior. Itís sure, since, if criminal doesnít stop his assault, he will be shot. And, most people would definitely call a bullet to the chest severe.

The beauty of armed self-defense is that, because of its immediate, sure, and severe nature, the mere threat is usually enough to stop the behavior. Thatís the ideal, because we donít want criminal behavior in society, but we really donít want anyone killed either. While this is still definitely a punishment-based system, it meets all of Skinnerís criteria for effectiveness, while the legal system meets none of them.

Is it any wonder that states that pass concealed-carry laws experience immediate and obvious drops in crime rates? The violent criminal in these states isnít nearly as worried about being arrested for his crime as he is about being shot by his would-be victim. This fact fits perfectly with well-established principles of behavior modification - punishment, to be effective, must be swift, sure, and severe. Armed self-defense fits the bill.

On the flip side, what about the crime facilitatorsí (i.e. gun control advocatesí) notion that we should submit to criminal assault, thus minimizing our risk of injury? Rather than recount the Justice Department statistics which blatantly disprove this claim, I would like to examine this idea under the behavior modification principles outlined above. In essence, failure to resist criminal behavior - that is, submission - rewards the behavior. The criminal gets what he wants - your money, your dignity, and maybe your life. Since positive reinforcement - reward - is the strongest, most effective behavior modification tool, that criminal behavior is likely to be repeated. In other words, by submitting to criminal demands, you are encouraging the behavior.

Therefore, we must ask ourselves: As a society, do we want criminal behavior to be encouraged, or discouraged? If the former, then submission is an advisable strategy. If the latter, however, is our goal, then we should avoid rewarding criminal behavior and punish it instead. And, as illustrated above, armed self-defense is a far more effective punishment - from a behavioral standpoint - than reliance on the legal system. (Please note: Iím not advocating that we take the law into our own hands and hunt criminals down. Iím talking about stopping a criminal assault with the threat or use of deadly force, when such assault cannot be reasonably interrupted through other means.)

For almost 100 years, itís been studied and well documented: Behaviors which are rewarded will be repeated. Behaviors which are punished will be extinguished. When it comes to criminal behavior, which do you choose?

Copyright 2000 Michael A. Mitchell. Permission is hereby granted to reproduce this article in its entirety, including this copyright notice. Mike writes for; you can read some of his other writings at Contact Mike at


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Tyranny is always better organized than freedom. óTHOMAS PAINE

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