The punishment proxy


People tend to take comfort in inaction and in habit (which is the same). People hate the unpleasant feeling that comes with taking the action steps necessary to becoming successful—especially when these steps increase vulnerability, when they require throwing yourself into interdependence or connection with others.

Successful people must be open systems. When you receive money for a service, you are an open system. The successful person is always already permeable. Being permeable is unpleasant for the cave-loving primate because bodily seclusion is a pro-survival second nature, on a par with an amoeba retreating from toxins. Except during mating season, space outside the body, separation from animals and other threats, is a good. Intimacy is a bad.

So we are fighting against a biological tendency when we make ourselves permeable and massively connected with others. We prefer to hide and refrain from action.

All that was a preamble for saying this: When we hide and do not take action, we see our error and then condemn ourselves. Self-punishment after not taking action feels like a decent alternative to real success.

So there are really three tiers of action:

  1. You do the right thing and take an action that moves you towards your goal.
  2. You do not do the right thing and then punish yourself.
  3. You do not do the right thing and then do not punish yourself.

So (2) is a viable proxy for what we ought to be doing, which is experiencing the pain, not of self-punishment, but of the unknown other person. The minor pain of self-punishment is being used as a proxy for the major pain of vulnerability. (2) seems like a minor victory. At least you are not simply not doing it. At least you are not doing it and then punishing yourself.

The punishment proxy is a corollary of the Gollwitzer effect. In the Gollwitzer effect, people substitute social reality for real goal attainment. In the punishment proxy, people substitute self-punishment for vulnerability.

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