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Why I Don’t Believe in Group Punishment

When Eric C and I played football in high school, our team had a problem. We couldn’t stop breaking the rules...like hitting other players after the whistle. Our team had more late hits than Tupac.

Well, not all of our team. Only a handful of players had the unique ability to draw multiple personal fouls every game. They would knock players onto the ground from behind, nail them after the whistle had long since blown, or get unnecessary roughness calls. (Yeah, unnecessary roughness calls in high school. Who does that?) And these penalties always seemed to come at key times to stop our offense from scoring or to provide the other team a boost of momentum.

To solve the problem, the coaching staff implemented group punishment. At every Monday practice, our coaches made the entire team do ten “up downs” for every personal foul from the previous game. (An “up-down” is when you jog in place, then jump on the ground with your entire body, then jump back up.

One Monday, our team did a hundred, if I remember correctly. The number was supposed to represent the number of penalties, or the yards we lost, or something.

So our team started a new ritual: every Monday we did a whole bunch of up-downs. Every Friday, our team went out and continued committing personal fouls. As if we were the high school version of the Oakland Raiders, we continued to lead the league in personal fouls.

When I was stationed in Vicenza, Italy, I had another boss implement group punishment. The problem was an epidemic of DUIs. After returning from a lengthy, soul-sucking deployment, the men of the 173rd preceded to release their pent up emotions through a series of DUIs, fights, and general misbehavior.

To solve the problem, our commander ordered that, instead of a single lieutenant running staff duty for the brigade, each battalion had to run a staff duty officer, plus another officer at brigade staff duty. Company commanders had to counsel lieutenants for “failing to lead” when their men got DUIs. Eventually, the commander added another lieutenant to a “DUI watch van” that was supposed to drive to bars and watch for soldiers misbehaving. This made life miserable--and sleep deprived--for the young officers of the battalion.

And the DUIs kept coming.

Many lieutenants--myself included--believed that the root cause of the DUIs wasn’t a failure of leadership at the platoon level. We hypothesized that our new commander’s decision to lower the number of four day weekends had more to do with the rise in DUIs than “a failure to lead”. Oh, and the post stopped offering a free rides for inebriated soldiers to discourage drinking. (It didn’t.)

Last football season another football program instituted group punishment. The head coach of my alma mater UCLA, Jim Mora, implemented a new discipline system based on group punishment. In the original draft of this post from before the season, I wrote, “I’m not optimistic.” I didn’t see how punishing the entire offense for a player showing up late would change that individual’s behavior.

So how did group punishment work out for the UCLA Bruins? Despite having a stellar season by beating USC, UCLA led the nation in penalty yards. This included plenty of dumb personal fouls.

Three different examples of group punishment. In each case, it completely failed to change the group’s behavior. Yet, group punishment is wildly popular within the U.S. Army and the larger national security apparatus. Tomorrow, I’ll explain why this is a problem.

eight comments

Also, a thought, but what were our coaches expecting us to do? Beat other players up a la Full Metal Jacket to get them to stop making late hits?

I spent a few minutes looking to see if any studies had been done on the effectiveness of group vs. individual punishment and found this one: http://www.econ.uconn.edu/working/2004-3.. Part of the conclusion from the study is that

[w]hen deterrence is the main goal of punishment and the enforcer cannot invest in detection, individual and group punishment yield equal social benefits. However, when the enforcer can invest in detection, individual punishment is again preferred.

I have another example from high school.

Some highschoolers cheat. All teachers try to catch them. Most fail. Many students cheat in my Italian class, and the teacher has caught few to none of them. Maybe they cheat off the Internet. Maybe they cheat off the people next to them. I’ve seen both—I’ve seen a self-described ‘friend’ cheat off me—though cheating in Italian class is none of my business; so-and-so’s grade has nothing to do with mine. Cheating in Italian class is the Italian teacher’s business.

A classmate, anonymous to me and the rest of the class, reported cheating. Whether it was cheating off cellphones or classmates is beyond me. The teacher started checking for both. Every quiz and test, we shut our phones and place them by the blackboard. Every quiz and test, we shuffle our desks, which screech like tortured children, left and right till the teacher decides that we are far from one another but close to her field of vision. It takes five-ten minutes, minutes that we need on that quiz or test.

Nothing has changed. Students cheat as often if not more often. The teacher’s problem has become my problem. I must pay. So must the best student in the class. So must the second- and third-best students in the class. It’s a little absurd. This system is ineffective at best and annoying at worst. I have no problem with my teacher, whom I’d call ‘brilliant.’ I have a problem with the system.

It is common knowledge that some students cheat. I know. They know. The teacher should know. Group punishment seems to treat the symptoms of the disease (with little success), not the disease itself. Time spent on elaborate desk rearrangement could go toward answering: ‘Why do students cheat? Why do these particular students cheat? What did we do that failed? What are we doing that’s failing? What new steps can we take? Should we listen to the students more?’ I imagine that the whistleblower named at least the obvious cheaters. They are a start.

I opened not, ‘Students cheat,’ but, ‘Some students cheat.’ Targeting the group rather than the individual—you may as well strain peas with a pot. The metaphor applies to football teams across the United States of America and militaries across the world. Choose your battles, and win them.

Ah, the fond memories of pushups in cadence waiting on some numbnut to finish tying his boots. The “everything your team does and fails to do” works well in some situations, but punishing leadership for the stupidity of their team? Pointless. And speaks to a lack of engagement by BN and higher…the “fixed that for you” approach. Solid piece, looking forward to tomorrow’s work.

Thanks Gary and you bring up a crucial distinction that a few hundred thousand word blog post can make. There is a difference between group punishment and team building. I have seen and been involved in hundreds of successful team building exercises using a mixture of punishment and rewards to encourage a team to bond together and excel. However, those exercises (and real world situations now that I think about it) succeed when the team can communicate and influence each other’s actions. In the examples above and in Austin’s excample, the ability to influence others behaviors is minimal at best.

Ooh, can I share high school stories too? My junior year, three of our lacrosse captains were late to practice because they were smoking in their car. The coach made the entire team do sprints because they were late. He chose to ignore the pretty obvious reason why they were late.

I never really thought of it until now, but group punishment is basically upper management abdicating their responsibility for middle management. If the coach wanted to punish the captains, he would have to find new captains and change the culture of leadership. Instead, he just made them feel bad.

It’s a pain in the ass to find new sergeants. It’s much easier to try to make your sergeants into something they’re not.

I have noticed in my short army career that “everything is a leadership problem” up until the level of the leader making that statement. That leader, typically a BN or BDE commander, throws their hands up and asks “why won’t my subordinate leaders fix this?” And their solution is typically some form of mass punishment that totally misses addressing the root cause of whatever the problem is.

I have noticed in my short army career that “everything is a leadership problem” up until the level of the leader making that statement.

I have no military experience, but I was once told that it’s easy to tell who is really “in charge around here.” Wait until SHTF and see who the most important person to face censure is. The person in charge is the one directly above.