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Rules, Punishments, and Rewards

Rules, punishments, and rewards are important for the proper and harmonious functioning of groups, as well as for our own behavior change.

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Recently, I was learning about the great sage kings of ancient China, one of them being Emperor Shun. In class, my teacher said that Emperor Shun was the first to establish severe punishments, such as amputating limbs and even the death sentence for breaking the law. He then asked us, "If Shun is so compassionate and virtuous, why would he implement such cruel punishments?"


I had this exact question in my head at the time, and the class had a discussion. What do you think?

My teacher explained that these severe punishments were for people who repeatedly committed extremely bad and severe crimes. A truly compassionate leader would not be biased towards any person. Instead, a leader needs to do what is best for the whole population in the long-term.


This reminds me of a story from the book Liao Fan's Four Lessons:

"In the Ming Dynasty, there once was a prime minister named Wen-yi Lyu, who was a just and lawful man. When he grew old, he retired to his hometown, where he was loved and respected by all the people. Once, a drunken villager went to his home and proceeded to insult him. Mr. Lyu was not angered by his words but instead told his servant: "This man is drunk; let's not give him a hard time." With this, he closed the door and ignored the onslaught of insults.


A year later, the same man committed a grave crime and was sent to jail with the death sentence. Upon hearing this, Mr. Lyu said with great remorse: "If I had taken him to the authorities for punishment that day when he came to insult me, perhaps this would not have happened. A little discipline then could have prevented the great harm done now, and might have saved him from certain death. At that time, I was only thinking of being kind, and unknowingly nurtured a daring and outrageous character. Since nothing came from his deed of insulting a prime minister, he grew bold and went on committing the crimes which later brought him the death penalty."


From this story, we can see that if people commit crimes without any negative consequences, then they will grow bolder and commit even bigger crimes in the future. Moreover, other innocent citizens would get hurt and be unhappy to see these criminals not getting punished. Thus, punishment is necessary for proper functioning of society. The degree of punishment needs to match the severity of the crime, otherwise citizens will get upset and rebel.

By establishing proper rules and punishments, not only do citizens feel like the leader is fair, but people are deterred from committing crimes due to fear of the punishments, resulting in broad, long-term benefit for society. Rewards are also helpful for incentivizing good behavior. This article will talk about enforcing rules for groups and for ourselves.

Part 1: Enforcing Rules For Groups

Most of us probably aren't emperors of a nation, but we might be leaders of a group, and wherever there's a group, there needs to be rules to facilitate harmony. For example, parents are leaders of a family, and families have house rules; teachers are leaders of a class, and schools have school rules; managers are leaders of a company, and companies have company policies. As leaders, we need to make sure our rules are fair and communicate the good intentions behind them.


Even if we are subordinates, we should have some understanding of "fairness" and "proper punishment" so that if our leaders don't know, we can advise them. If we see others' bad behaviors, and we are not rule enforcers, we should not overstep our power and punish others. If we do, then we are clearly acting out of arrogance and anger. Instead, we should objectively report to the relevant leader for the sake of the group.


Rules include both rewards and punishments. The purpose of rewards is to incentivize good behavior. However, we have to be careful. People should be doing these good behaviors because it's the right thing to do, not solely for the reward. That's why moral education is important.

But sometimes, when people do the right thing, they don't get rewarded, while others who do bad things don't get punished. For example, someone who puts in extra effort doesn’t get recognized, while those who loaf don't get any punishments and even laugh at the diligent people. In this case, people will lose motivation to be good. That's why proper rewards and punishments are important.


The purposes of punishments are to HELP the rule-breaker in the long term and to protect the bigger group. It is NOT to vent anger. If the leaders punish out of anger, then the group members will feel resentment. If resentment accumulates, the people will eventually overthrow the leader. But if the rules are too lax, or if other people feel that leaders are unfairly biased towards certain people, the people will also accumulate resentment. Thus, we can see the importance of fairness in punishment.

So what is fair punishment? In class, my teacher mentioned many factors to consider:

  • Did they break the rule intentionally or unintentionally?

  • Is this a first time offense or a repeat offense?

  • Is this a once-in-a-while offense or a frequent offense?

  • Do they feel remorse for the offense?


It's better to be more strict rather than lax when establishing rules and punishments because you can always loosen rules later, and people will be happy. But if the rules are too lax at the beginning, then we make them more strict, people will be unhappy and push back.


It's also good to get people's input into the rule-making process because people will more easily accept rules if they had input. At the same time, we shouldn't be afraid to "be the bad guy" and establish a necessary rule that people don't like because other people might be biased and only think for themselves. A necessary rule is one that is good for the greater whole in the long-term.

1.1: Intentional Vs. Unintentional

If they broke the rule unintentionally, obviously the punishment should be lower.

But we also need to know why they didn't know about the rule. Is it because the leaders didn't communicate with them? Or is it because they didn't pay attention to the communications? Or is it because the communication only happened recently, and people haven't had time to adjust to the new rules yet?


If they broke the rules intentionally, then the punishment would be more severe. We also need to communicate with them to understand why they would choose to break the rule. After all, if we can be a good person that everyone likes, who would willingly choose to be a rule-breaker that people hate? Perhaps it's just their habit, in which case a heavier punishment might help them have more motivation to improve. If they have extenuating circumstances, perhaps the punishment could be lightened.


1.2: First-Time Vs. Repeat

We are all human, and we all make mistakes. If it's a first-time offense, the punishment should obviously be lighter than repeat offenses. Punishment also needs to get more severe as the number of occurrences increase. In the world of Human Resources, this concept is called progressive discipline. For example, we might give them a warning the first time, then a meeting with the leader the second time, and then a serious consequence the third time.

A truly compassionate leader would also work with the person to create a plan for how to improve their behavior and prevent repeat offenses. For example, if someone is often late, we could have a discussion to find a suitable solution. Perhaps they could set an alarm clock, or sleep earlier, or find a buddy to call them beforehand. Although the fear of punishment is an effective motivator, we can also pair the desire for rewards. For example, we can say, "If you are on time for one week in a row, you get a small reward." Desiring a reward is a more positive motivator than fear of punishment, and offering both rewards and punishments show that we are caring and unbiased.


1.3: Once-In-A-While Vs. Frequent

Similar to first-time versus repeat, if this offense only happens once-in-a-while, we can be more lenient in the punishment. But if it happens frequently, then we need to have a serious conversation and establish a plan for behavior change.

As mentioned earlier, habits are hard to change, and establishing larger punishments and rewards can be helpful.


1.4: Remorse Vs. No Remorse

If they feel remorse for what they did, then we can give a lighter punishment.

After all, the whole point of punishment is to teach them right and wrong and to deter them from committing the offense in the future. If they already feel remorse, then our goal is already achieved. Of course, there are varying levels of remorse, and the leader needs to judge how strong the person's remorse actually is.


Part 2: Enforcing Rules for Self

The above all talk about how to establish and enforce rules for others. As an enforcer, we need to aim for fairness and even err slightly to the side of tolerance. But what about rules for ourselves? Establishing rules for ourselves is very important for habit change.


The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius said,

"Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.


My mentor also said,

"The reason many of us struggle to change our bad habits is because we are too lenient towards ourselves."


For example, I had some students who often come late to morning class because they woke up late. I told them, "How about you send a really embarrassing picture of yourself to your friend. If you are late next time, your friend gets to share that embarrassing picture on social media."


The response I usually get:

Obviously, I can't force them, but I bet if they really did it, they wouldn't dare to be late again. The school has a progressive discipline system, so if they are late three times, they have to meet with the principal, and the principal might communicate with their parents.


For rewards, we use them at the beginning to help us change. But once the behavior becomes more natural, we should reduce the reward and eventually eliminate it. After all, the real benefit should come from the good behavior, and that benefit should be enough in itself to keep us motivated.


Something I learned before is that Memory = Frequency X Intensity. This is true not just for our memory, but also for our muscle memory and habits. For example, I have a bad habit of complaining. In the past, I did the 21-Day No Complaint Challenge. Every time I complain, I get a punishment (I have to start over from day 1). Since the frequency of my complaints is so high, I am able to see noticeable results. As my streak increases, the punishment for complaining increases (I don’t want to start over from Day 1), which increases my vigilance.


On the rewards side, the size of the reward needs to be proportional to the accomplishment. I can set a small reward (e.g., my favorite chocolate bar) if I complete 3 days, a bigger reward at 10 days (e.g., watch my favorite movie), and the main reward at 21-Days (the satisfaction of completing the challenge). But once the non-complaining habit is well-developed, I don't need rewards to keep motivating me. The benefit of not feeling the urge to complain is the main reward.


When it comes to habit change, most of us are averse to big punishments, so we can try smaller punishments first. But if these small punishments aren't creating results, then we need to try big punishments. For example, if I'm doing the 21 Day No Complaint Challenge, and I keep losing before day 5, then I could try a big punishment: run for 1 hour if I complain. If I complain again, run for two hours. After that run, I will have a deep memory of the pain of complaining, and I will have much more alertness to not complain.


Important note: A big punishment is NOT the same as abusing oneself. It's not meant to make you feel like trash. The punishment should be a healthy punishment. For example, going for a run is actually good for my health. Another example is eating a bowl of healthy food that doesn’t taste good.


Another important note: It's usually a bad idea to rush change. Just as our body posture takes time to develop and change, so too do our habits. If we are rushed for quick results, we might change quickly, but that change won't last long. Soon, we become tired or unhappy, and then we swing back to our old habits. That's why progressive discipline is important: use a big punishment after smaller punishments have failed.


Rules, punishments, and rewards are all important to the harmonious functioning of groups and society. They are also important for our own habit change. When establishing and enforcing rules for a group, it's extremely important to be fair and unbiased. When establishing rules for ourselves, we should also follow progressive discipline, and we shouldn't shy away from big punishments if smaller ones have failed.


Weekly Wisdom #274


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