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, writing

Notes From My Upcoming AWP Panel Presentation(‘s Recording Session, Because COVID)

Tomorrow, I’ll be recording a panel for AWP on “Neurodivergence in Literature,” along with colleagues and dear friends Nick Walker, Alyssa Gonzalez, and Mike Jung.

I’m a co-founder of Autonomous Press; I’ve published multiple works through Neuroqueer Books; I was the managing editor of Neuroqueer; my MA thesis was on poetry as a neurodivergent/neurotypical common language; and my current project is a paper outlining what is is we mean by “neuroqueer,” in which I’m relying heavily not only on the writings of the three originators of the term but also on being able to text them memes at 2 am.

So I guess I’m qualified to pontificate on neurodivergence in literature, lol.

The panel will include specific questions aimed at each of the participants, plus a half-dozen or so general questions. I have already forgotten what the me-specific question is, and I have no idea what my co-panelists will say, so the panel itself is worth seeing. I will insert the day/time/etc. info here when I have it.

Here’s a sneak preview at what’s banging around in my head in response to the questions for the panel.

Blog post title image featuring a typewriter and journal in the background.

Opening Remarks on Neurodivergence in Literature

I fully expect to riff off whatever everyone else says at this point in the actual panel presentation. For the purposes of this blog post, which has a somewhat different audience, I’ll start by defining some terms:

“Neurodivergence” is commonly used to refer to everyone whose brain isn’t “normal” (a term with its own problems that I’ll get to in a second). Currently, it’s often a catch-all term for things like autism, ADHD, and PTSD, as well as things like traumatic brain injuries or the effects on the brain from drug use. In disability activism, it sometimes gets tagged “our minds are not fine,” a play on early activists’ claims that physical disability should not preclude them from full social participation because “our minds are fine.”

When I discuss “neurodivergence in literature” for the sake of this blog post, I’m primarily interested in the ways in which author and narrator perspectives diverge from what we think of as “typical” cognition. I’m interested in divergences from both our idea of “normal,” or what already-is common and expected, and from “normative,” or what we believe should be common and expected.

The difference between “normal” and “normative” is one I don’t see addressed in the vast majority of conversations about neurodiversity/neurodivergence, to our detriment. Those two ideas interplay in ways that hugely impact how we understand cognitive, emotional and neurological differences, yet we rarely if ever tease them apart.

For instance: When we say a person is “neurodivergent,” we mean they differ or diverge in some way from some other reference point – typically referred to as the “neurotypical.” What we often don’t do is distinguish whether the “neurotypical” reference point is “normal,” i.e. common or expected, or “normative,” i.e. someone we think should be normal or expected.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter, but sometimes it matters a lot.

Also, I personally make a distinction between talking about “neurodiversity in literature” and “neurodivergence in literature,” as well as between either of those ideas and “neuroqueering” as a practice. To me, “neurodiversity in literature” speaks more to who gets to be represented or do the representing, while “neurodivergence in literature” is more about what and how non-normal or non-normative bodyminds get represented. “Neuroqueering” is a specific species of “how,” and it’s not actually the topic here, which is a shame because I’m currently obsessed with it.

What is the Current State of Neurodivergence in Literature?

In three words: “New, but not.”

Literature has always been a way that people explore neurodivergence, just as neurodivergence has always existed within the human population. Humans as a whole have always been neurodiverse.

Right now we seem to be at an inflection point. The #ownvoices movement and similar changes to how we think about who gets to tell stories and who gets to star in them have made publishing more accessible to people, including neurodivergent people, not only to get published but to do so without having to mask their own neurodivergence.

Yet this inflection point comes with its own risks. Every time we define a set as separate from or different to another, we risk balkanizing it. That’s a risk we face with neurodivergent authors and characters currently: That we’ll reach a place where #ownvoices neurodivergent literature becomes a gimmick.

What Are Some Successful Instances of Neurodivergence in Literature (as an author or reader), and What Makes Them Successful?

Some of the most successful examples of neurodivergence in literature do not deal with authors, characters or readers with diagnosable conditions. Often they succeed because no one involved is diagnosable. Rather, the story moves the reader into the position of experiencing neurodivergence without getting to label it “oh, this is what it’s like to be autistic” or “this is what it’s like to have hallucinations” or whatever.

A few mainstream releases that come to mind include Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation, Yoon Ha Lee’s Machineries of Empire series, and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Each book/series takes the reader on a rather intense departure from what we think of as normal/normative, rational cognition.

Yet in each case, there’s no tidy DSM diagnosis to slap on that experience. What’s the ICD-10 code for “becoming an eldritch being” or “eating a dead murderer’s memories” or “conversing with one’s heart as it walks around outside one’s body”? These authors and their works take readers into that experience without categorizing or defining it, and it leaves a lingering effect on the reader.

What Are Some Examples of Unsuccessful Works?

Nearly every book that tries to present neurodivergence by means of labels ends up reading as a failure to me. Joyce Carol Oates’s Carthage, for instance, is split directly down the middle as a success/failure, and the moment it makes the turn is the moment Oates outs the protagonist as autistic.

Prior to that point, the reader is immersed in the experience of being a depressed autistic woman in a claustrophobic small town. Oates actually captures that very well (I speak from experience, having been this person). Cressida’s decisions make sense in the context of that claustrophobia and her depression and her deeply rooted sense of being irrevocably different yet unable to explain it to anyone.

But the moment we’re told “Cressida has autism,” suddenly the entire story is about that diagnostic label. Suddenly Cressida is not relatable. The reader gets yanked out of the experience of neurodivergence and back into a world where “normal” is a very tight, specific set of feelings and behaviors.

Labels have such a powerful effect on neurodivergence in art, and it’s rarely a good effect. I have always appreciated, for instance, that Bill Watterson staunchly refused to respond to questions about whether Hobbes was a “real” tiger or a “stuffed” tiger or “just a product of Calvin’s imagination.” The truth of Hobbes, of course, is that he is any/all of the above, all at the same time. To carve off any of those facets in the name of “understanding” Hobbes is to murder him.

Incidentally, this is also why none of the characters in my own novels get diagnostic labels in the text. Several of the humans have diagnosable neurodivergences. But the one time I revealed one to a reviewer, the reviewer managed to miss every other neurodivergent experience in the text – and even to miss some of the labeled character’s most obvious symptoms!

What Do You Hope Will Not Happen Regarding Neurodivergence In Literature?

I really hope the entire concept of “neurodivergence in literature” doesn’t get reduced to a gimmick or a sales pitch.

I do think there’s an incredibly important role for #ownvoices authors and books. But I want to avoid a world where we start requiring authors to out themselves as some kind of diagnostic-label neurodivergent in order for their depictions of divergence to be taken seriously. Conversely, I want to avoid a world where we assume that every author who writes neurodivergence well can be reduced to a diagnostic label.

“No label, no divergence” is just neurotypicality under another name.

What Do You Hope Will Happen Regarding Neurodivergence in Literature?

I hope we move away from the “normal,” “rational,” “common,” “typical,” “expected,” etc. as the default expectation, in reading and in life. I want readers to be ready for anything when they open a book, and willing to go wherever the book does.

My undergraduate class in Short Fiction was taught by a man who insisted that if a protagonist’s actions didn’t make sense, either the protagonist was mad or the writer was a hack. This, to me, is a prime example of neurotypical-as-normative dominating the conversation. There is no room from such a perspective to explore the myriad worlds of the human mind – to expand ourselves via reading as well as to expand the spectrum of human representations in text. There’s only “this has to make sense to me” or “it’s crap.”

I want to see labeling fade away. I want to see neurodivergence expressed in literature as actions and experiences, rather than lists of symptoms. I’d like to see readers get so used to experiencing characters’ mental/emotional states that they stop asking for diagnostic labels and actually find them jarring.

Authors don’t need to prove themselves or their characters by sharing diagnoses. They need to provide an experience that changes the reader. Readers, in turn, need to be open to that experience as one that can change them, rather than pushing it away with “oh, well, if this character doesn’t have these symptoms or that diagnosis then they can’t be neurodivergent.”

And I don’t think the road to that world is as long as it might be. I don’t think it was ever as long as folks like my Short Fiction professor want us to believe. Literature is a malleable medium; it’s always had room for the weird and often delighted in it.

Have Opinions? Leave a comment, share this post on social media, or fuel me with coffee.


Study: 1 in 40 Autistic People Surprised You’re Surprised That 1 in 40 People are Autistic

A study announcing that the autism rate among children has risen to 1 in 40, higher than the 1 in 58 previously estimated by the CDC, is making headlines. Despite the fact that the study authors themselves admitted they were not surprised (a South Korean study put the number at 1 in 38), we’re seeing the usual uptick in “crisis” rhetoric, along with the usual new spate of bizarre woo-based memes.


Chicken Little.

Since leaving activism several months ago, I’ve scarcely kept up with autism news and I’ve commented on autism-related subjects even less. This one, however, stands out to me because of its parallels with a Quora A2A I received a few days ago: “Have you ever shared a bathroom with a transwoman [sic] and what happened?”

The answer to this question is, of course, “I have been in a public bathroom with a trans person before and so have you, and neither of us probably realized it at the time.” Trans people make up 0.6 to 1 percent of the U.S. population, after all. That’s about two million people. Evenly divided by state (which the population overall is not, so neither are trans people), that’s 40,000 trans people per state, or an entire Big Ten university.

The response to the Chicken Littles scurrying in response to the study results is the same: “Autistic people have always made up about 2.5 percent of the population, you just didn’t realize it before now.” That’s about 8 million autistic people, or about 160,000 per state – a midsize metropolitan area.

Natural redheads, incidentally, also make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population. Have you met more than one natural redhead in your life? Statistically, you’ve met that many autistic people as well.

Of course, this answer seems to placate no one. In fact, it most often appears to entrench the speaker further in their anxiety that Things Are Getting Worse All The Time.

Granted, “things have actually been as bad as you think for a while now” isn’t exactly comfort food. For someone whose anxiety is driven by a sense of lost control, “it’s been out of control” doesn’t help and can actually make the anxiety worse.

And questions like “why are all the kids turning autistic?!” or “are there trans people in our bathrooms?!” are very much about a sense of lost control. Autistic people and trans people are seen as threats because of their status as Other. When more of those scary Others start to pop up, many people experience a sense of disturbance to their internal order, their sense of how things should be: Men are men, women are women, everyone communicates in a certain way, and all is right with the world.

Reminders that the world has never actually been that way aren’t great. In fact, they’re kinda horrible.

Of course, not everyone reacts to new information in this fashion. Research indicates that our brains can be structured in ways that correlate with our willingness to embrace difference (and with our political views). The concept of fixed vs. growth mindset explores similar differences from another angle.

For the less-fixed types, “Autistic/trans folks have always been in your life” actually can be comforting. Oh, the world isn’t changing at all; it’s always been like this, and I’ve done just fine so far. For those more comfortable with embracing ambiguity and difference, this statement may even be delivered with an edge of annoyance: We’re here, we’re (neuro)queer, please get used to it so we can stop teaching 101-level classes about how we do in fact exist.

But how do we get past the Chickens Little, for whom “hey, we’ve always been here” is a reason to avoid the 101 classroom instead of entering it? I don’t know. I just know that a lot of our modern anxieties aren’t as diverse as we think.