Positive Consequences

In legal matters we often impose negative consequences to change behavior. However, using positive consequences may in many cases work better. Basically, a negative consequence is a punishment, while a positive consequence is a reward.

One benefit of reward as opposed to punishment is that it helps the person WANT to change their behavior, because they come to associate the new behavior with positive feelings. With punishment, the person is more likely to resent the punishment, which means they will associate the desired behavior with negative feelings, which leaves them not really wanting to behave that way if they can get away with it. Think of it this way, are you more likely to do something that makes you feel good, or something that you are being forced to do against your will.

With a child, for instance, you can choose to punish for hitting, or reward for playing nicely. Certainly there may be times when it is necessary or appropriate to use either, but if the parent is able to find more opportunities to reward the playing nicely rather than needing to punish the hitting, they are encouraging the child to think of playing nicely as a good thing they want to do, rather than something they need to do to avoid punishment. If they are just trying to avoid punishment, then they have more tendency to see hitting as something they want to do (because they resent being forced to not do it), and so resort back to it if they think they can.

The same principle can be used in divorce situations. So often we only impose punishments – for not paying support, for not picking up the kids on time, for substance abuse, for lashing in a variety of ways. If we can find ways to reward the opposite behaviors, we may ultimately be more successful in changing the behaviors. With parenting for instance, we often reduce time with the children when a parent can’t act appropriately (stay sober, arrive on time, etc.) What if the schedule was done in such a way that the lesser time was the default but the parent was rewarded with the the greater amount of time when they arrive on time, stay sober, etc? What if spousal support, instead of being set at $1000 per month with possible contempt as punishment, was instead set at $1200 per month, with a provision that it is reduced to $1000 per month if paid by X date?

These may not be perfect examples, but still think about the principle – how can we set things up so the other person comes to have positive rather than negative feelings associated with the behavior we desire?