Vicarious punishment is a type of vicarious conditioning where one person observes another person (the model) being punished after doing something.
This results in the observer being less likely to engage in the same behavior they just witnessed being punished.
Learning by observing a model do something is a form of observational learning which stems from Albert Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory. This theory states that people learn by observing others.
There are several factors that affect the strength of learning that takes place in observational learning. For example:
- vicarious punishment will have stronger effects the greater the perceived degree of similarity between the observer and the model
- the credibility, status, and skill of the model may also affect the strength of vicarious punishment
- people high in empathy may also be more susceptible to learning through vicarious punishment
Examples of Vicarious Punishment
1. In the Classroom
The first day of school can be a confusing time for students, especially younger children. The environment is unfamiliar, the teacher is new, and the rules are unknown.
That is a recipe for anxiety, but also a recipe for observational learning. If a child sees another student being punished by the teacher for playing with a certain object, or leaving the classroom without permission, then that scenario is very informative.
Right away, other students in the classroom that have witnessed the student being punished will be far less likely to do whatever it is that student did to get punished. This is a result of vicarious punishment.
The other students do not need to engage the behavior themselves and receive the punishment directly from the teacher themselves, seeing is enough.
2. On Television Shows
People learn a lot from watching television shows. It’s possible to learn how to cook a delicious meal or even how to renovate a bathroom. People can also learn about the laws of society or the principles of ethical behavior.
For example, when watching a TV show about romantic relationships it is easy to see that certain behaviors will be punished: cheating on one’s spouse, forgetting about anniversaries, or being truthful about form-fitting jeans.
Once a person observes those actions being met with scorn and stone-cold silence, it is a lesson to take to heart. Later in life when one finds oneself in a romantic relationship, there is no need to make those same mistakes. This is the type of vicarious punishment that can save us from a lot of grief.
3. Trading Stocks
There are a lot of people that think they can open an online account and start day-trading their way to riches. Even though they have no experience, no access to internal reports of the companies they are trading, and no insider information, they still believe.
Some of those believers may actually have friends and acquittances that lost all of their retirement savings.
Instead of benefiting from vicarious punishment and realizing that they too will lose everything, they still think they can do it.
Unfortunately, this is an example of the power of the overconfidence bias to override the power of vicarious punishment.
4. Crash-Test Dummies
Wearing seatbelts saves lives. Today, this is a well-known fact. However, there are still lots of people that resist buckling up. Over the years, various public service announcements (PSAs) have encouraged drivers to wear seatbelts.
One of the most popular PSAs featured a couple of crash-test dummies, Vince and Larry. The commercial showed what happens to the human body in a car crash if not wearing a seatbelt.
Instead of presenting a gruesome depiction of how much damage can be inflicted on the human body, the commercial took a humorous approach. The idea was that if the depiction was too graphic and unpleasant, then viewers could just switch to another channel.
So, keeping viewers watching was accomplished by making the commercial slightly entertaining. In an odd twist, the commercials became a bit of a pop-culture sensation and led to a toy line and a TV show.
However, the message was still clear: if you don’t wear a seatbelt, the consequences could be severe. This is an example of using vicarious punishment (depicted humorously) to increase safe behavior.
5. Through Personal Narratives
The term “vicarious” is not limited to direct observation. There are different forms of vicarious learning, such as in reading a book or listening to the life stories of elders.
This is why listening to the stories of grandma and grandpa is not just a nice thing to do, but a lot can be learned from people who have made it through life for 70 or 80 years. Heeding their warnings and internalizing their principles of life can save a person a lot of grief.
When an elderly person tells a story of how they lost all of their money in a con, or how they ended up in legal trouble due to a foolish act, it would be wise to listen.
One of the main benefits of vicarious punishment is that a person doesn’t have to experience the pain of that punishment directly.
6. Watching the News
There really is no excuse for not being informed in today’s world. There are multiple news channels and many are on 24-hours a day. Believe it or not, there was a time when national news was only on for 30-minutes a day, and there were only 3 channels to choose from.
Watching the news can be a great source of vicarious punishment. Since most news is negative, there are a lot of lessons to be learned about what gets people in trouble.
From political scandal to fraudulent money schemes, to the dangers of illicit affairs and co-worker romance, today we can see others suffer the consequences of their ill judgment any time of day.
7. Learning Through Office Gossip
Office gossip gets a bad rap. It is usually associated with negative outcomes like people denigrating their colleagues or engaging in sneaky social manipulation. While those are true, there are also some benefits to office gossip that often go unacknowledged.
For example, people can learn about what not to do through office gossip. It can provide valuable information regarding the consequences of being late, doing sloppy work, or which supervisor is the most vindictive.
Especially for a new employee, it would be much better to know what to avoid through vicarious punishment in the form of office gossip than to make those mistakes personally.
As gossip researchers Jolly and Change (2011) point out “…gossip also helps promote cooperation in groups without a need for formal sanctioning mechanisms” (p. 2539).
No one wants to have to deal with sanctioning mechanisms.
8. Through Reading
Reading can be just as an effective form of vicarious punishment as direct observation. In fact, because so many people might read the lessons taught in a popular book or novel, it can actually be more powerful because of the scale of impact.
For example, there are many biographies of famous people that not only describe their path to success, but also talk about the sacrifices and regrets they endured on their way.
Although many people’s lives appear glamorous and fortunate on the outside, a peek behind closed doors can reveal a personal life of despair and self-doubt.
If biographies aren’t your cup of tea but you still want to learn about the pitfalls of bad judgment, then check out the Greek tragedies.
9. In the Animal Kingdom
Vicarious punishment also occurs in the animal kingdom. Since there are obviously no books to read or PSA’s to watch, animals learn a lot by observing the actions of their parents.
This is how cubs learn to hunt and chimpanzees learn to use tools to gather termites. Not only do animals learn the correct way to carry out certain survival behaviors, but they also learn what not to do by witnessing others.
For example, a couple of cubs might be curious when they first encounter a snake. The one that is most curious is also the one that is most likely to get bit. So, after witnessing their sibling cub almost get struck by a cobra, they will all learn to avoid similar-looking creatures in the future.
In the book The Life of Reason (1905/1906), Spanish philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” A modern version is often stated as, “those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
The lessons of history are full of opportunities to learn through vicarious punishment. Errors in political miscalculations that led to world wars, the dangers of dictatorships and authoritarian rule, or the mishandling of pandemics, all present opportunities to choose a better path.
Those choices can save millions of lives if those in powerful positions take due note.
1. No Need for Pain
Yes, when in the gym, “no pain, no gain” are words to live by. But in other realms of life, it might be best to avoid pain if possible.
As mentioned in one of the examples of vicarious punishment above, one of the main advantages of vicarious punishment is that there is no need to experience the punishment directly.
It’s possible to learn from the mistakes and tragedies of others without having to go through those misfortunes yourself.
Learning can take time. If a person were to attempt to do everything from scratch, no matter what it was, there would be a lot of failures along the way. That can be frustrating and wasteful. It might be so frustrating that a person simply gives up. That doesn’t yield anything at all.
That’s why learning what not to do through vicarious punishment can be so efficient. Instead of making all of those mistakes, wasting time and resources, and expending so much psychological energy, it is much more efficient to avoid those errors to begin with.
1. Not As Strong As Direct Experience
The biggest disadvantage of learning through vicarious punishment is that the learning is not as strong as it could be.
Experiencing a situation first-hand and enduring the pain of punishment directly is far stronger than through observation alone.
Punishment inflicted directly will most definitely be remembered, quite possibly for a lifespan. That impact is hard to replicate by reading about another person’s bad judgement or watching the news. It’s just a situation that is somewhat muted in terms of its emotional impact.
2. The Role Of Models
The person that is punished (the model) can have a significant impact on the strength of impact. If the model is low in prestige or authority, or is highly dissimilar to the observer, the impact will be weakened.
Observing someone very similar to ourselves get punished is a lot more compelling than observing someone that we have nothing in common with.
Similarly, seeing someone of high status be punished for their actions is also a more substantive experience than a person with little to no status in society.
Unfortunately, a lot of role models may not be similar to those that need to learn that lesson the most.
Vicarious punishment occurs when one person observes another (the model) being punished for an act they did, or did not perform. There are many forms that vicarious punishment can take, including through reading, watching the news, or listening to the words of wisdom from one’s grandparents.
Although vicarious punishment may not have as strong an effect as direct experience, it can have a substantial impact at scale. If a great number of people read a particular book or follow the suggestions of a cleverly-written PSA, it can literally change the behavior of millions.
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