A complicated question. Psychologists prefer not to use punishment frequently because of nasty and unintended side effects that can derail you. Punishment can leave you feeling discouraged, make you feel like a failure, and become more aggressive or punishing to other people. Punishment does not direct us to the better alternative; it only suppresses behavior temporarily.
On the other hand, wise and selective use of punishment can shape your eating and exercise behavior. For these reasons, minimize punishing yourself, both in your daily behavior and in your thoughts. Rewards are more effective in the long run. Less stick and more carrot.
If you decide to use punishers -- and I know that some of you will (perhaps it’s just human nature), here are some pointers:
- Punish like a tree. Properly applied, punishment should be immediate, contingent, and calm. Every time you run into a tree, you experience the same response. Emulate a tree should you decide to punish yourself in addition to rewards, and avoid having an emotional “I got you” response.
- Each and every time. Be consistent with your punishment even though daily life might get in the way. We only get caught on rare occasion for cheating on diets. That’s a weak way of controlling behavior; instead, apply a mild punishment every time.
- Catch it early in the behavior chain. Punishing yourself is more effective when it’s done early -- before the unwanted behavior culminates in a more serious outcome. Reaching for the forbidden cookie jar while dieting can be mildly punished. Don’t wait until after you’ve already eaten four cookies.
- Variety is the spice of punishment. By definition, punishment is not necessarily a penalty; it’s anything that decreases the behavior. Thus, use a wide range of mild forms of punishment so that they do not lose their impact.
- Double thrust the consequences. As you punish yourself for what not to do, simultaneously reinforce what to do. In our cookie example, you could mildly punish yourself for reaching for the cookies and then immediately reward yourself for eating a healthier substitute. Always combine punishment with rewarding the healthier alternative!
- Put yourself in timeout. Much like you might ground adolescents or put youngsters in a “time-out” for their misbehavior, you can punish yourself just by removing a pleasurable event or activity. You can skip your favorite television show or lose some other “behavioral freedom.”
A complicated question. Psychologists prefer not to use punishment
frequently because of nasty and unintended side effects that can
derail you. Punishment can leave you feeling discouraged, make you
feel like a failure, and become more aggressive or... More