Habituation to Punishment – Why I wanted to send Larry to Alcatraz

I’m normally a pretty calm guy, but I wanted to kill Larry.

It was April 2020, the peak of Covid terror.  The State of Illinois had moved our entire shelter into a hotel to stop an outbreak.

Larry called the front desk saying that he was going to set fire to his room.  I don’t even remember why he was mad.  When staff tried to check on him, Larry barricaded his door shut with a couch.

I called Larry’s room. 

We “chatted.”  (Translation: “I lost my temper.”)

I told Larry that if he didn’t open his door, I would call the SWAT team.  They would kick his door down. They would arrest him.  They would turn Alcatraz back into a prison just for him!

Larry said something unkind about my mother.  (Note:  Larry has never met my mother, so I’m not sure why he brought her into it).

I don’t remember much more of the conversation (I was too mad).  I distinctly remember, though, Larry saying, “You’re going to kick me out anyways, so I might as well torch this place!”

“Habituation to Punishment”

I had forgotten that not everyone experiences the world the way I do.

Larry is what social scientists call “habituated to punishment.”

That’s just a fancy way of saying that someone has been punished so much that they don’t care about punishment anymore.  They expect it.  They have learned that they will be punished no matter what they do.

It is VERY frustrating if you are trying to threaten people into following the rules.

Threats don’t work.

Punishment doesn’t work.

So, what the heck do you do?

When punishment doesn’t work, you have to use something other than punishment.

Psychology works.

In fact, all of our trainings are about how to use psychology to get people to follow the rules (instead of punishment).

In the case of Larry, my co-worker Neil saved me.  He quietly asked me to give him the phone.

I’m not sure what Neil said to Larry (I had to walk away).  In the end, Larry let staff into his room.  He gave up his lighter.  He stopped threatening to burn the hotel down.

A month later, Larry and I talked:

Larry told me was sorry for threatening to burn a hotel down.

I told Larry I was sorry that I wanted the SWAT team to imprison him in Alcatraz.

Habituation to Punishment is one of the “basic” concepts in our trainings.

Scroll up to watch the short clip from our core training.

Have a great day!

Ryan