Conventional, folk psychology… we meet again!
Folk psychology encompasses the sayings our culture has passed down through the ages like, “birds of a feather flock together.” They don’t always agree though! How about “opposites attract”? Well, contemporary psychology has answers to the colloquial sayings, but the function of an “availability heuristic” tends to change our opinion on things (as well as reduce dissonance).
An availability heuristic means making a decision based on the most salient idea that comes to mind (the idea that comes to mind most readily, and easily). Imagine this conversation in middle school, “Did you hear Mary is dating Billy!! I know they are so different, but opposites do attract!”
In this example, we can assume that Mary and Billy are two very different people, yet they are in a relationship. This causes the speaker a measure of dissonance. Perhaps this is because Billy always gets in trouble, always skips class, and doesn’t pay attention to his personal hygiene Mary on the other hand never skips class, always does her homework, and is a generally nice person. The idea that these two people would have a lifestyle that has much in common is surprising and causes us dissonance. To cope with it, we try to find a quick-fix, in this case a folksy saying, “opposites attract.”
According to the Five Principals of Liking, however, we know that similarity is of major importance. Opposites may be interested in learning more of each other, but the relationship will not be as strong as two individuals with more in common. Thus, we have to say that opposites may pique interest, but that’s about it.
While my last example may be benign, think about this conversation of a mother, who is raising a four-year-old, who is speaking to her own mother (the grand mother of the child).
The mother says, “I don’t know what to do with Billy. He never listens, and after warning him not to do things he still does. I have to take him over my knee and spank him, otherwise he thinks he can get away with anything.”
The grand mother says, “That’s how I was raised too. If you spare the rod, you spoil the child!”
In this instance we are talking about child abuse to inflict physical pain on an individual who lacks the ability to defend themselves, and they lack the ability to fully control their own behavior. As children do not have a fully developed Theory of Mind, it’s absurd to use martial discipline to change their behavior.
It’s very important to keep in mind what sort of message we send our children when we use physical discipline. What, precisely, is this interaction teaching the child? Advocates of physical discipline may feel it teaches children to be respectful, it allows a parent to instruct the child without question, and it gives the child discipline in the future.
There is no evidence to support this notion. It’s unfortunate that such an idea is still prevalent in this age.
Let’s look at a simple scenario, first from the parent’s point of view, then from the child’s. This will help us understand what they are learning from the interaction.
The parent comes home from a long days work and there sits six-year-old Billy, with chocolate all over his face. Billy’s parent was quite upset because Billy has been told time and time again that candy is not to be eaten except after supper! It seems obvious that the message has not stuck, so Billy’s parent feels like the only way to make this message clear is with a spanking. Billy is spanked, and his parents tells him why they are spanking him and what is expected of him.
From this example we can see that the parent felt they had done everything they could do to explain the situation, thus they needed to add some “weight” to their rules. The parent now assumes that Billy will think twice before disobeying again.
The story is a bit different from Billy’s point of view.
Six-year-old Billy is waiting around for his parents to come home. He sees something sitting in the fridge, a chocolate bar. Billy knows that his parents do not want him to eat candy until after dinner, but he’s unable to stop fixating on this candy. The more external reasons (rules made by parents) there are to avoid a behavior, the harder it is to resist it (justification of effort). Further, this forbidden item is sitting there right within his grasp, and before too long, his impulses get the better of him. Is this because he has no respect for his parents? No, it’s because his prefrontal cortex has such a long way to go before it is developed (it finishes developing in our 20s!!!!!!). His parents come home, they are mad at him for breaking a rule, and they feel as if they need to punish him.
Billy’s does not think that the rule makes any sense as he can’t conceptualize health behaviors at his age. Why should he have to wait to eat something that tastes good? Since he can’t juggle multiple parts of information at the same time (see more about that with Piagetian theories like transference) he only sees the most salient feature of the situation. I cannot state the important of the next thought enough – the child will tend to think “my parents make up the rules, and can make me follow them because they are older, bigger, and stronger than me.”
This is not the message the parents intends to convey, but it is the most salient idea the child learns from the behavior. What does this lesson teach the child? Externalizing behaviors and anti-social behaviors.
Landsford et. al. (2009) describe the following effects of children exposed to high levels of physical discipline.
“Children whose parents remained high in their use of physical discipline across this developmental period showed the highest levels of antisocial behavior in adolescence,” (p. 1398). (This longitudinal study’s sample started with 10-year-olds and followed them until they were 15)
Externalizing behaviors can be described as “lashing out.” When someone does not deal with negative emotions well, they tend to verbally, or physically abuse someone or their property. This goes hand-in-hand with anti-social behaviors, which are behaviors that completely disregard the effect one’s behaviors will have on other people.
To summarize, we see that children who are punished physically are more likely to take out their frustrations on their peers, and when they do not get their way, they see violence as an acceptable method of persuasion. That’s an incredibly dangerous combination.
Benjet and Kazdin (2003) make a great point in their review of the “spanking” controversy by describing effective methods of behavioral change without the negative outcomes.
“More palatable alternatives, on the other hand, are well established for shaping child behavior. Mild noncorporal punishment such as time out and loss of privileges in the context of contingent positive reinforcement (use of praise and rewards) can accomplish the goals for which spanking is usually employed without the negative outcomes. ” (p. 221).
As we can plainly see, sparing the rod does not spoil the child. Punishing a child by using corporal punishment creates a child who is more likely to use physical aggression as a method of persuasion. Certainly not every child who was raised with physical discipline developed problems. In fact, we may all know some people who are positively flourishing in spite of an abusive past. It seems likely that such abuse made their overall development more difficult, but by no means impossible. However, did the behavior of their parents help shape them into the person they are today, or was their success shaped more by their peers than anyone else?
If you take the side of author Judith Harris (2002), you might think parent do not really influence the child that much! However, Scarr and McCartney (1983) feel quite the opposite. In my next post, we’ll talk about a seemingly absurd debate as Judith Harris famously stated “Parents don’t matter!”
Corina, B., & Alan, K. (2003). Spanking children: the controversies, findings, and new directions. Clinical Psychology Review, 23(5), 197-224.
Lansford, J., Dodge, K., Pettit, G., Criss, M., Shaw, D., Bates, J., (2009). Trajectories of physical discipline: early childhood antecedents and developmental outcomes.Child Development, 80(5), 1385-1402.