Carrots and Sticks

24 01 2010

Our future human resources

I got up early yesterday to drive these two daredevils to their ski-race camp. And, it got me thinking about how we, both as parents and as a society, choose incentives and disincentives to manage our human resources, ie. carrots and sticks. In this case their parents, who are friends of mine, have found Franny (left) and Kristina are willing to lift weights, dry-land train, get up early in the morning and hurtle their growing bodies down icy slopes, in exchange for the rewards associated with competitive ski-racing. They do it, because they love it. That seems like a progressive way of steering kids into healthy pursuits.

In contrast, it occurred to me that we as a society are regressing.  A new Angus Reid public opinion survey found 62 per cent of respondents favour capital punishment for murderers. This is a significant increase since 2004, when 48 per cent favoured capital punishment. The survey, conducted last fall in Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States, reveals the shared belief by many that even though mandatory minimum sentences can be unfair, they are an indispensable tool, a good stick, that helps deter criminals from committing crimes.

Unfortunately despite the average Canadian’s experience with punishment as a way of deterring behaviour, experts in criminology have shown that neither mandatory sentences nor capital punishment have ever been shown to deter crime.

As a recent letter to the editor of the Globe and Mail by Jim Hackler, author, Canadian Criminology: Strategies and Perspectives, Victoria documented: both California and Texas offer case studies of how politicians used “get tough” policies to deceive voters who respond to simple-minded slogans about crime. For several decades, these states built prisons to accommodate an ever-increasing number of convictions. Funds for education and child care, which provide a positive return for society, were cut. Funds for prisons, which provide a negative return, were increased. Why not spend taxpayer money on things that actually reduce crime?

Negative consequences do deter crime, unfortunately not in most criminals. There are some good neurobiological reasons for this. Let’s take a moment to review the neurobiology of reward and punishment.

Humans have a reward circuit. It’s a dopamine circuit and it runs from the brainstem to a place called the nucleus accumbens, aka, the reward centre. But dopamine does not only communicate reward, it also is the neuro-chemical for at least four other circuits. The five main dopamine circuits are:

Reward Dysfunction here is manifested as being easily bored, feeling diminished pleasure, reward or satisfaction from normal stimuli.

Attention Dysfunction here is manifested as poor attention to detail, careless mistakes, difficulty listening, losing things.

Executive function Dysfunction here is manifested as difficulty with commitment, difficulty sticking to task, difficulty self monitoring, poor planning/ organization, poor problem solving.

Motor control Dysfunction here would manifest as fidgeting, inner restlessness, difficulty sitting through meals, meetings, movies.

Impulse control Dysfunction here would cause distractibility, impulsivity,  excessive talking, blurting things out, being impatient and interrupting others. One of the most obvious deficits associated with poor impulse control is the difficulty making choices between competing priorities.

You can see in the italicized text, that many common criminal traits are associated with dopamine circuit dysfunction. It’s no surprise then that the likelihood of finding ADHD and addiction, two disorders associated with dopamine dysfunction, is very high in criminals.

This is not my opinion or some excuse that bad people use to avoid responsibility for their bad behaviour. This can be shown on SPECT scans of criminals, gamblers, adulterers, liars, thieves, rapists, murderers, you name it. When they are in the heat of the moment, the part of the brain that usually lights up in normal people when they are weighing the consequences of a potential action, DOES NOT LIGHT UP. Simply put, in most cases they WERE NOT thinking through the consequences of their actions. Now before you jump down my throat and label me soft on crime, hear me out.

  • I am not saying criminals do not know wrong from right. They do.
  • I am not saying that criminals have not pre-meditated their crimes. Ususally they have.
  • I am not saying that criminals should not be responsible for the consequences of their actions. They should.

What I am saying, is that most criminals have poor impulse control and don’t show much foresight. They know the consequences, they just don’t weight them properly. They know logically that their actions will have negative consequences, they just don’t value those consequences at the point of performance. Like a kid who launches his skateboard down a steep hill without a helmet. He “knows” the danger. He just values the reward, higher than the risk.

And who do you think becomes a criminal in our society? People who are willing, on multiple occasions, to choose actions with huge potential negative consequences, because they undervalue the risk. Criminals are essentially compulsive gamblers. And all the research we have ever done on pathological gamblers show that they do not have a normal risk evaluation system. That is their illness. That is why mandatory sentences including capital punishment are excellent deterrents for normal people, they just don’t work on criminals, because there is such a thing as a criminal mind.

I could go on, but I think you get my point.

So why are we building bigger jails and spending more money on lawyers, judges and crown prosecutors? Every bit of data ever collected says this is not only the wrong approach, it is THE MOST EXPENSIVE APPROACH. On the contrary, the data shows that we save $7-10 dollars in the social costs of mental health, addiction and crime for every dollar we spend on youth centres, mental health services, child care, parenting programs, etc.

It is my considered opinion that if we paid more attention to parents and children, we would have to spend much less on crime and punishment. If we improved the use of carrots, we would need to spend less on sticks.

Which brings me back to Franny and Kristina. I’m not saying that were it not for ski-camp, these two would be headed for a life of crime. Ski-camp may not be for everyone. But organized, group-based, outdoor physical activity, whether it is soccer or sailing, provides kids with bevy of physical, emotional, cognitive and spiritual benefits that should be considered highly prized social outcomes. These kids will be fitter, their brains will be more flexible, they will learn to cope with failure and loss, they will learn social skills, they will be more accountable for their actions, they will learn to soothe their fears, they will be more confident and will probably spend less time obsessing about their clothes or possessions, THEY WILL SPEND MORE TIME IN NATURE and LESS TIME AT THE MALL. There is a good chance they will be better stewards of the environment. In short, while there is no guarantee they will fly straight, the chances are in their favour.

It would be simplistic to think that we don’t also need to have negative consequences when people break rules. We do. We need both carrots and sticks. And, we need to be progressive with both. While money invested in youth  does not guarantee good social outcomes, playing to our kid’s strengths and spending at least as much money on parents and kids as we do on jails is in my opinion a preferred human resources management.

Cheers, A

Dr. Anthony Ocana – MSc, MD, CCFP, ABAM – special interest in mental health and addiction – co-founder NorthShore ADHD Clinic

http://www.northshoreadhd.com

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