17 June 2021

Do I look bothered?

The Back Page

Your back page correspondent is the bearer of bad tidings for the “lock ‘em up and throw away the key” brigade, so pandered to by our politicians in the lead-up to their electoral beauty pageants.

Seems there’s a cohort of folks out there for whom the threat and reality of punishment for wrongdoing is no deterrent to making bad behavioural choices.

While it’s long been theorised that some miscreants are either so strongly motivated by the prospect of a short-term reward that the thought of being punished is dwarfed, or they simply don’t care about adverse consequences, there may be a third explanation in the mix.

Psychologists and neuroscientists from UNSW Sydney have devised a video game which tests how sensitive people, well in this case 135 psychology students, are to punishment.

“We designed a game where players could make certain responses that won them points, but some responses also lost them points,” the university’s Dr Jean-Richard-dit-Bressel said.

“After playing it for a few rounds, many players drastically changed their behaviour to avoid losing points, which was a good strategy. However, many other players did not avoid point-loss, even by the end of the game, and as a result, did much worse at it.

“Really popular accounts of punishment sensitivity say that these two groups probably differ in how they value outcomes. Or that they differ in their impulsivity – their ability to control their own behaviour.

“Surprisingly, these factors did not explain the difference between good versus bad avoiders of punishment. The thing that these players really differed on was how well they understood the consequences of their actions.”

The boffins, who recently published their findings in the journal eLife, believe this could be an important factor in accounting for an “insensitivity to punishment” exhibited by some people.

Interestingly, this trait can also apply to other behaviours, such as folks who repeatedly tell inappropriate jokes but also wonder why people don’t like them much. It may also help explain in part addictive behaviours and personality disorders.

The study was funded by the Australian Research Council and involved a collaboration between researchers at UNSW Sydney’s School of Psychology and Western Sydney University.

If you see something inappropriate, say something. Email felicity@medicalrepublic.com.au

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