commentary and current events, neurodivergence, the creative process

Punishments Don’t Change Behavior. They Change the Costs of Behavior.

Here’s a conversation we’re not ready to have:

Punishments do not change behavior. Punishments only change the costs of behavior.

For example: Say that your older child is teasing, tormenting, bullying or otherwise picking on your younger child. In an attempt to stop this behavior, you tell Older Child, “if you treat Younger that way again, you’ll lose computer privileges for a week.”

A few hours later, Younger is in tears. You confiscate Older’s phone, expecting to “teach them a lesson” that results in a behavior change.

But what is the lesson? How will it be learned? For that matter, how exactly was it taught?

Image: Blog post title image.

Punishments Don’t Address Behavior

Recall the deal: “if you treat Younger that way again, you’ll lose computer privileges for a week.”

Nowhere does that deal say Older Child must stop tormenting Younger Child. It doesn’t try to determine why the tormenting happens. It doesn’t express any moral or ethical position on tormenting Younger.

But it’s not neutral on tormenting Younger, either. In fact, the deal implicitly condones Older’s behavior – for a price.

“If you treat Younger that way again, you’ll lose computer privileges for a week” doesn’t say “stop tormenting Younger.” It says “You may continue to torment Younger, but from now on, the cost of that privilege will be giving up your computer time for a week.”

Now Older has a choice to make. If Older decides what they get from keeping the computer time is worth more than what they get from picking on Younger, Older will pay for their computer time by foregoing bullying. If Older decides what they get from picking on Younger is worth more than what they get from computer time, Older will forego computer time to pick on Younger.

Either way, Older won’t focus on the bullying behavior. Older will focus on the price tag.

Punishments do not change behavior. They turn behavior choices into economic questions.

But it gets worse.

Punishments Place Value on Behavior They’re Intended to Stop

Suppose your neighbor bought a new car. They put their old car in the front yard, with a sign on it reading “Free.” How high do you think the value of that car is?

If you’re like most people, you suspect it’s pretty low. You might assume the car doesn’t even run at all. After all, even a car that doesn’t run is usually worth a few hundred dollars at the local scrapyard.

Putting a price tag on something increases its perceived value. If you have to pay for something, you’re more likely to assume it’s valuable than if it’s simply given away for free – especially in a culture that values “the hustle” and in which fewer and fewer people have the resources to waste on largesse. If something is free, it’s probably valueless, unless it rides along with something you’re already paying for (like those free breadsticks at Olive Garden).

Higher price tags can lead to higher perceived values, as well. Shoe store chain Payless demonstrated this point in 2018 by creating a fake luxury shoe brand, “Palessi,” and asking shoppers how much they’d pay for a pair of Palessi shoes (actually just Payless’s usual budget brands).

The answer: Twenty or more times what those shoppers would pay in an actual Payless store.

The same pair of shoes, worth only $20 to a shopper at “Payless,” were suddenly worth $400 to a shopper at “Palessi.” Shoppers’ perception of the shoes’ quality was higher as well: Many justified their three-figure price quote by praising the shoes’ construction, design or materials.

Increasing perceived value by assigning a hefty price tag isn’t a phenomenon limited to budget shoes. When it comes to your hypothetical children, assigning a punishment to “picking on Younger” also increases the perceived value of the activity.

Assigning a punishment provides a comparison value against which to measure, indicating roughly how much you, as a parent, value the bullying of your younger child. In this example, by putting a price tag on “picking on Younger,” you tell Older that you think the value of picking on Younger is equal to or lesser than to Older’s assessment of the value of their computer time.

When you picked “computer time,” you probably picked it because you knew Older valued it – more, you hoped, than picking on Younger. After all, common wisdom regarding punishments is to “choose something the target cares about,” right? If the price tag of computer loss is too high, Older will quit the bullying because it had less value than computer time.

But you also told Older that picking on Younger was not valueless. It has a value that can be pitted against other values. And in this case, that value is roughly as high as Older’s appreciation of their computer time.

The more you raise the value of avoiding the punishment, the more vehemently you state that the punished behavior has value. Suddenly, you’ve given tormenting Younger – a behavior whose value you wish was zero – an even higher perceived value than it had before you threatened punishment.

You didn’t change the behavior. You just made it more appealing.

Older already knew picking on Younger had value, by the way. Which raises our second problem: Economic choices are not (always) made in a vacuum.

Effective Punishments Depend on Having Monopoly Power

Let’s say you really want those Palessi shoes, but they’re not available at Payless. In fact, they’re only available from one store, and that store charges $500 a pair for them – more than you’re willing to pay.

If that one shoe store were the world’s only choice for shoes, you’d be stuck with the $500 price tag if you wanted the shoes. But it’s not. You can shop for similar shoes from other shoe stores, or look for a pair of the shoes on the used-clothing market, or split the cost of the shoes with a friend and share them. Or you might sell some shoes you don’t wear or get a part-time job until you have enough money that you feel comfortable parting with $500.

You value both your money and the shoes, so you look for ways to reduce the costs of parting with the money (have more) or owning the shoes (buy discount or used, share) until you reach a balance that allows you to have both.

Likewise, in the “pick on Younger or have computer time” deal, Older’s choice isn’t merely computer versus bullying.

Older can, and likely will, find ways to reduce the cost of the more-costly choice so that both choices remain accessible. This is particularly likely to occur if both choices are close in value in Older’s mind.

Say Older values computer time and picking on Younger equally. After a few moments’ thought, Older realizes that your household isn’t the only one with a computer: Older can go to a friend’s, or the library, or stay after school in the computer lab.

Now Older can eat their cake and have it: They can both get computer time and continue to pick on Younger, all because they realized you are not the sole vendor of computer access.

Similarly, Older may decide that they don’t want to give up bullying, but that bullying Younger isn’t strictly necessary; it’s just convenient (like how you may decide that you want shoes similar to the Palessi shoes, but the Palessi label isn’t strictly necessary). Older may stop bullying Younger, but may instead start bullying the neighbor’s child, or the kids on the playground at school.

You haven’t taught Older to stop bullying, just like Palessi hasn’t taught you to value your money more than having shoes. You’ve merely taught Older how to comparison-shop to get the best value on the features they want most – whether those are bullying or ballet flats.

Punishments won’t work if you don’t have monopoly power over both the behavior and the price tag on it, because the target can always comparison-shop. But here’s the kicker:

Punishments don’t work if you do have monopoly power, either.

Punishments Do the Most Harm When the Target Has No Choices

So far, our examples have looked at economic choices between fully voluntary, chosen behaviors. You are free to pay money or go barefoot. Older is free to bully Younger or play on the computer. Both you and Older have alternate options in both of your choice situations; you both have roughly equivalent information about those options; you both have the power to do or not-do each thing, or to “shop elsewhere.”

In economic terms, we generally think of this freedom as “competition” or “elasticity.” It’s essential to the functioning of a capitalist market. And when it doesn’t exist, externalities pile up quickly.

Consider, for example, the ongoing problem of for-profit healthcare. For years, we’ve heard the argument that rising healthcare costs aren’t too concerning, because patients can “shop around” to find the “best value” for their medical care. The more patients do this, goes the argument, the better controlled healthcare costs will become.

Yet healthcare costs keep rising. Why? The data indicates that two things are happening:

  • Patients aren’t “shopping around” for the “best value,” because factors like lack of information and urgency prevent them from doing so. You don’t have the time or health necessary to call five hospitals for their appendectomy prices as your appendix bursts, for instance.
  • Patients rely on the healthcare system itself to provide the information they need to make informed economic decisions. Is your vague headache hay fever or a rare form of brain cancer? To get the “best value,” patients need to know which they have before they go to the doctor – but they must go to the doctor to find out which they have.

On the other side of the equation, patients are losing ground as well. A 2019 study found that 40 percent of Americans don’t even have $400 available for a sudden emergency. When the average doctor’s visit without insurance costs $300 or more, many people find that “pay money or skip lifesaving medical care” isn’t a choice on either side of the equation. They have no money to pay; they need medical care to live.

There’s no point in shopping around for healthcare when you can’t afford anyone’s prices on it, and when you’re going to seek it anyway because debt beats death.

What does this have to do with the punishing children? Everything.

As noted above, punishments won’t be effective if you do not have monopoly power over both sides of the deal offered. As long as your child is free to “shop around” for the “best value” and to choose or forego either option, your child will find ways to rearrange the balance to suit them.

But if you do have monopoly power over both sides of the deal, then there is no deal. Your child can no longer make a choice about the cost of their behavior, because there is no choice. Either way, they will suffer.

Here’s an example.

Suppose that, instead of picking on Younger, Older never starts talking. Older instead points at things, or makes various noises, or bangs on objects to get your attention. This goes on for years, until a doctor explains that the reason Older doesn’t talk is because you’ve coddled them so they never had to.

This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense – all your other kids talk – but you paid for this professional advice and you’re going to follow it. And the first piece of advice you implement is to punish Older in order to get them to knock off this not-talking nonsense. You start taking away Older’s favorite foods, their favorite toys, even their bedding. You start ignoring Older when they point or bang on things and lavishing them with praise when they grunt or squeal – but Older still refuses to make words.

You know that Older has never said a word in their life, but you’re desperate for a solution, and you trust the doctor who told you to toughen up. “Clearly,” you think, “not talking is still more valuable to Older than having all their personal possessions or their family’s attention. I know Older could talk if they wanted to, so they must not want it bad enough.”

Since it seems obvious to you that the sum of all Older’s privileges is still lower in value to them than not-talking – and because you’re sick of waiting on them – you decide to turn up the heat. You tell Older, “you’re not leaving this house or eating until you say ‘food’.”

Now you have monopoly power over the equation, right? Stuck on in the house, Older can’t “shop around” for food – they’re dependent entirely on you for it. Nor can they find a way to forgo talking and still get food, because you won’t accept anything but Older saying the word “food” in order to get it.

Except, just like indigent patients in desperate need of lifesaving healthcare, Older is now in an impossible position. Older needs food to survive. Older actually cannot talk.

Having monopoly power over both choices in a punishment is the only way to prevent shopping – but it results in harm to the target that has nothing to do with the behavior you’re trying to change.

If this sounds like an extreme or contrived example, it’s not. Applied Behavioral Analysis – the current “gold standard” for treating autism in children, including nonspeaking children – uses precisely these techniques in precisely these situations. (The practice’s seminal text, The Me Book, specifically calls for using food this way, calling it “a great motivator.”) To “treat” a condition that prevents certain forms of social, sensory and motor engagement, ABA forces its targets into situations where they must “choose” between survival and doing a thing their very condition prevents them from doing.

This is like “treating” a broken leg by withholding food until the patient walks on it.

ABA has changed somewhat since its inception in The Me Book, however. Today, many practitioners will tell you they don’t use punishments – only rewards. But….

Rewards Have the Exact Same Problems Punishments Do

Rewards cause the same problems as punishments. That is to say: Rewards do not change behavior. They merely change the costs of behavior.

To return to our original example: Suppose that instead of telling Older “if you pick on Younger again, you’ll lose your computer time for a week,” you say “if you don’t pick on Younger for a week, I’ll buy you a new computer game.”

It may sound like a kinder, gentler way to get Older to change their behavior. Yet you still have not targeted the behavior itself. You’ve only made it more expensive to do the behavior than not do it.

First, you’ve still put a price tag on “bullying Younger,” communicating that you think bullying Younger has value – here, a roughly equivalent value to the amount of money you’ll save if the bullying continues. (Something to consider if you’re a fan of handing out candy for correct answers or gift cards for “work effort.”)

You also pit the cost of changing a habit against the value of a potential payoff. In other words, Older has to pay all the costs of the change upfront, but is not guaranteed a payoff. Maybe you’ll decide Older’s work is “not good enough,” or you lose your job, or you just forget you made the deal. Older now has to decide which is more valuable: “working to change my behavior because maybe I’ll get a new game” or “doing nothing and receiving nothing I don’t already have.”

Older can still “shop around,” as well. Maybe they really want that computer game, but their best friend already has it and is happy to share their copy. Or maybe Older has been saving up their allowance and realizes that if they buy the game themselves, they can have the game and freedom to torment Younger. Or they transfer their bullying to the neighbor’s kid for a week, get the game, and go right back to picking on Younger. (Maybe they “behave” long enough to get the game and then pick on both targets, effectively doubling their engagement in the very behavior you’re trying to prevent.)

Monopoly power over rewards doesn’t work for the same reason monopoly power over punishments does not: Without the real economic power to shop around, Older will merely suffer externalities that have nothing to do with the behavior itself. “Every time you say ‘food’ I’ll give you bite of your dinner,” to Older, is the exact same problem as “no food until you say ‘food'”: Without control over either side of the deal, there’s nothing Older can do but starve.

Worst of all: You still have taught Older nothing at all about why they should not pick on Younger in the first place.

Older hasn’t learned why bullying their sibling is a bad thing. They haven’t learned, for example, that it hurts their younger sibling, or that it hurts the rest of the family, or that it will hurt their ability to navigate the wider social world. Older still has no idea why they shouldn’t bully Younger, and as long as bullying Younger pays off, Older will continue to do it.

All Older knows now is how to get a good deal. And if you control both sides of the deal, Older hasn’t even learned that – Older has only learned that you are a big, mean, irrational monster who can and will kill them to get your way.

This post exists not because I expect a reward, but because it needed to be said. Sharing it on social media or leaving me a tip, however, will help me marshal the resources to write similar posts in the future. Thank you.

commentary and current events, neurodivergence, the creative process

Thoughts on Managing Work Addiction

Here in the US, we are obsessed with work. We consider it among the highest virtues – if not the highest. We automatically ascribe the “hard worker” trait to anyone we consider successful, and the corresponding “lazy” trait to anyone we don’t. And we persist in these beliefs despite reams of evidence that billionaires don’t actually work harder than the middle class, but the working poor do.

I’ve written about my work addiction before. I continue to write about it precisely because it is the end result of a society that applauds working oneself to death. “Workaholic” is not a badge of honor; it is a sign that something has gone very, very wrong.

I went into rehab for chronic pain in November 2015. It ended up being rehab for my work addiction as much as anything else.

Five and a half years later, I have mostly accepted that my work addiction is a chronic condition. It will never be cured. The urge to overwork myself will always be present to varying degrees; I will always be managing it within the context of the rest of my life.

Now, for instance.

Over the last several weeks, I’ve noticed myself backsliding on the whole “keeping work under control” thing. I find myself too fried from work to have a conversation with my spouse. Household chores have gone un-finished because I used all my energy on work. I’m increasingly snappish when ordinary, normally joyful things like a friend’s visit or garden work “get in the way” of working. I’m starting to think of the rest of my life as “getting in the way.”

Those are all red flags that it’s time for me to reconsider how I’m doing this whole work thing.

Image: Blog post title and URL on stock photo of laptop and coffee.

Managing a work addiction is difficult for several reasons. First, it’s more like managing a food addiction than a substance addiction. Total abstention isn’t an option. Humans need work, not merely in the “I need money to live” sense, but in the “I need to put effort toward meaningful goals in order to stay mentally healthy” sense. For addictions to essentials, there is no “just say no” campaign. There is no easy solution to spoon out.

Second, a lot of the resources for managing work addiction are not helpful. Advice like “reset your priorities!” or “hide your smartphone!” simply will not cut it for people (like me) who use work to hide from deep-rooted trauma. Often, work addiction advice reads like it was written by someone who (a) has never been addicted to work, (b) can’t quite bring themselves to advocate laziness, or (c) both.

So what does work?

In my experience, managing work addiction requires attention to three different areas, which I call “boundaries,” “alternatives,” and “issues.”


Because total abstention from work is not an option, I need strong boundaries around my work time. I work during work time and I do not work during not-work time.

Often, the most obvious symptom of backsliding is that work is creeping into not-work time. I’ll just go another half-hour! I’ll pick this up again after dinner! Writing a thirty-tweet thread about this topic isn’t really work; it’s socializing!

Maintaining boundaries requires brutal honesty with myself. And I say “with myself” because, even though my spouse often notices when my boundaries are slipping, I do not rely on my spouse to tell me about it. This is my life. It’s my addiction. That is my work, and those are my boundaries.

When I catch myself backsliding, Step 1 is always a reaffirmation of my work boundaries. It’s a re-commitment to really turning off the computer and walking away when Work Time is over for the day.

“Reset boundaries” is always Step 1 because it’s the easy part. The other two are harder.


When I stuff all my work back into the Work Time boundaries, I find myself with an awful lot of free time. Especially during the pandemic, when many of the activities I normally use to fill this time were suddenly off limits.

One of my preferred Not Work Time activities pre-pandemic, for instance, was going to the gym. I went to the gym not because I specifically love the gym, but because I cannot work at the gym. I can only gym at the gym. Going to the gym, then, provided an easy way to enforce the work/not-work boundary while also providing an alternative to work.

Since work is not an option during Not Work Time, I need alternative ways to deal with the issues I was using work to deal with. These alternatives cannot be work in disguise. They need to be something else.

This one is hard when the addiction in question is work, because that addiction doesn’t limit itself to our usual definitions of “work” as “the thing I do for money” or “the thing connected to my title at this organization.” Work addiction will happily feed itself on just about anything that constitutes the pursuit and attainment of a meaningful goal.

Here, too, self-awareness plays a key role. If a Not Work Time activity starts to feel like work, I abandon it. I left a kitchen deep-clean half-finished last week because it started to feel like work.

My preferred alternatives include exercise, reading, video games, gardening, and cleaning. I love writing, too, but I took that one off the list on purpose – writing happens during work time, because it can so easily become work. The goal is to find alternatives that do not feel like work and that can’t easily disguise work.

The third step is the hardest of all.


I can set boundaries around my work time. I can find alternate activities to fill my time when it is Not Work Time. Yet neither of these activities is going to last on its own unless I also do the hardest of the three steps in managing my work addiction: Determining what issues are triggering my drive to overwork.

Often, the issue in question is stress-related. Unsurprisingly, this past year was tough.

What issues in 2020 could possibly have been causing me additional stress? It is a mystery?? /sarcasm

When I first started dealing with my work addiction as an addiction, the issues I was avoiding were almost always CPTSD flashbacks. Over time, as I’ve worked through the trauma in therapy and in my daily life, I’ve run into fewer instances where I am overworking in order to avoid looking at some piece of past trauma.

I cannot stress how important this step is, however. Boundaries and alternative activities are a cast; they keep things in place and help prevent further injury. Addressing the underlying issues is the healing part.

This is where I feel a lot of advice about work addiction falls short. Often, it gives people things to blame that aren’t the actual underlying issue. “Oh, you’re really addicted to success, not to work” is a common one. Or “you’re not addicted to work, you’re a perfectionist.”

Those may be issues some people struggle with! Nevertheless, it seems irresponsible to me to bring them up in the context of an addiction. Addiction Brain and Trauma Brain will both grasp at anything in order to avoid dealing with the root of the problem. Tossing them an excuse to gnaw on is, ultimately, less helpful than suggesting there is an underlying cause for work addiction and it is worthwhile to seek out what that is – with professional assistance if needed.

If there is a cure for my particular work addiction, I have not found it. All I have so far is the ability to manage it. So far, though, that’s kept me alive. So far, that’s been enough.

If you found this post helpful or you know someone who might, feel free to share it on social media.

commentary and current events

Q1 Blogging Roundup: Everything I’ve Blogged This Year So Far

Is Daylight Saving Time kicking your tail right now? It’s definitely kicking mine.

There will be more Actual Content(TM) in this space next week, I swear. In the meantime, please enjoy this roundup of all the blogging (here and on Medium) I have done so far in 2021.

Image: Blog post title image with title and URL, and a photo of a person blogging on a laptop.

On Writing

Beginners: A “Writing Strategy” Isn’t What You Think It Is: Lots of beginning writers ask for my “writing strategy,” by which they mean “how do you actually get a book out of your head and into your publisher’s hands”? What they mean is “what is your process?” A “writing strategy” is something else – something just as important as a process (or possibly even more important).

How to Write Realistic Legal Objections: TV and movies have schooled generations of Americans on how legal objections work, and not for their benefit. Here’s how to avoid using objections for dramatic effect and how to start using them like an actual lawyer would instead.

How to Fake a Conlang: Need some words or names in a made-up language, but don’t want to make up an entire language? Here’s how to make it look like you invented an entire language when you did not.

So You Need to Name a Fictional Character: Here’s how to find names that really reflect your character’s personality or traits, rather than simply being names you chose randomly from a baby name site.

Here’s Why a Plagiarism Checker Won’t Save You From Plagiarism: Plagiarism checking software can’t actually detect all types of plagiarism, and it also flags many things as “plagiarism” that aren’t.

How to Submit to an Anthology: I break down how to read a call for submissions and respond to it, step by step, using the call for Spoon Knife 7 (which is currently open!).

How to Tell if an Editor is About to Steal Your Book: Does something about your editor just seem…dastardly? Here’s how to tell if your editor is about to bring out the Giant Book-Stealing Laser.

On Working and Creativity

What Are Employers Paying For, Anyway?: Workers automate their jobs, then agonize over whether to tell their employers. And for good reason.

The Atlantic vs. My Impostor Syndrome: I thought I’d never be good enough to write for The Atlantic…until I did it.

What’s My Creative Process? This. And It Works: Here are the ten steps I follow for creative work, from idea generation to final product.

What It’s Like to Be Addicted to Work: “Workaholic” was once a source of pride for me. Then it nearly killed me.

“Too Lazy”? Try Not Lazy Enough: Over and over, studies demonstrate that humans do our best work when we have plenty of time to mess around and play. Yet that’s precisely the kind of time we deny ourselves out of fear that we’ll look “too lazy.” What is going on?

Niralanes 101: Welcome to the Language I Built a Novel Series Around: So much of what happens in my novel series depends on understanding the conlang I wrote the series to support. Here’s how to start navigating it.

24 Books Every Beginning Witch Should Read: Everyone wants to start their witchly journey by reading poetry to candles. Here are 24 books that can make you a lot better at that – or explain why it’s not the best place to start.

We Shall Overcome: A Creative Commons licensed arrangement for concert band.

On the World We Live In

We’re Worried About Student Performance. We Should Be Worried About Student Survival: Students can’t learn, online or in person, if they’re hungry or homeless. Too many of our students are both.

“Cancel Culture” Didn’t Cancel Dr. Seuss. Capitalism Did: The decision to stop publishing six Dr. Seuss titles was purely business.

“Happy” Quarantineversary: The obligatory “a year ago I was” post at the one-year mark into my personal COVID-19 Experience(TM).

Inauguration Day 2021: Looking Back, Looking Forward: Over half a million of us did not survive Trump. Here’s what we need to do next.

On Forgiveness: How do we move forward when the person who committed a wrong against us will never redress it themselves?

Three Unusual (but Potentially Useful) Approaches to Insurance: Sometimes weird risks need weird coverage.

Why You Should Keep Your Cat Indoors: Not only is it safer for them, but they really love it, too. Three cats weigh in on why Indoor Life is the Best Life.

Silly Stuff

The Worst Thing I Ever Did in a Video Game (So Far): I had The Sims 4 for, like, five minutes before it proved I am the worst human being who ever lived.

Everything You Never Wanted to Know About the Ferengi: Why do people constantly ask me Ferengi questions on Quora? Anyway, here are my answers about Star Trek’s greediest little alien weirdos.

Here’s How Many Calories of Turkish Delight Edmund Pevensie Ate: No wonder he was in such a bad mood.

Best of the Blog: My Top 10 Most-Viewed Posts of 2020: Here is a link in a linkpost to a post full of links.

Keep it rolling: Buy me a coffee or share any of these posts on social media.