Emperor Hu Hai: The fall of the Qin dynasty

The region of Yuyang had rebelled. Hu Hai – the second emperor of the Qin (pronounced Chin) dynasty which had united China – called on its resources to come and help defend against the rebellion. Chen Sheng and Wu Guang were army officers that were called to help defend along with their band of common soldiers.

But both Chen Sheng and Wu Guang were stopped midway by severe rain and floods. It was apparent that they would arrive very late.

Chen Sheng turns to Wu Guang and asks him: “what’s the penalty for being late?”

“Death” says Guang.

“And what’s the penalty for rebellion?”

“Death” replies Guang again.

“Well then…” says Chen Sheng. And thus began the famous Dazexiang Uprising against the Qin kingdom. Chen Sheng recruited 10,000 discontent peasants to fight alongside him. The rebellion spread all over China. 

And while this rebellion was quashed, it severely weakened the Qin dynasty. It was the beginning of the end. And led to the rise of the Han dynasty 3 years later!

Harsh punishments almost always backfire

People use punishment to change behaviour. But harsh punishments come with a side dish of unintended consequences. Instead of changing their behaviour, people rebel. And look for ways of escaping. It causes hurt and hate.

Punishments should be immediate, consistent, and proportional to the bad behaviour. Its purpose should be to change future behaviour, not to extract revenge. And so it should always ensure that dignity and respect remain intact.

For punishments to be effective, they should not feel like harsh punishments at all. There is a whole building of research that teaches us the most effective punishment to change behaviour.

Research on children show us how to punish effectively

Robert W. Coleman Elementary School is an inner city school in Baltimore, USA. It’s filled with kids coming from poor homes. The school ranks close to last in academic performance. And it had a big behaviour problem with a lot of rowdy kids.

The kids were often given detention and suspensions. But things never improved.

Then brothers Ali and Atman Smith showed up with a suggestion. They asked the school to do an experiment. To create a special room where students could be sent instead of detention. They called this room: the mindful moment room.

The room was decorated with purple plush pillows. And when a student misbehaves, he is sent here where a teacher helps him calm down. The teacher helps them with deep breathing. And guides them through meditation. And finally, when they are calm enough, they are asked to talk through what happened.

This was enough to help kids fix their behaviour. Surprising isn’t it? No amount of punishment worked as well.

Child psychologists espouse the benefits of timeouts over any other kind of punishment. Sitting in corners works for toddlers. Because what is required is simply calming down and reflecting on what you did.

Most of the time, we already know when we do something wrong. But we do it anyway and find reasons to justify our bad behaviour. Reflection helps us get out of that thought cycle.

Robert W. Coleman school had 0 detentions and suspensions for 7 whole years after they instituted the mindful moment room!

Conditioning the children

Another school – the Glenhaven public school in Australia had a bullying problem. No amount of punishment and sending kids to the principal’s office was working. What finally worked was focusing on positivity instead of negativity.

Instead of punishing negative behaviour, they just started rewarding positive behaviour. And soon, the negative behaviour stopped.

It was classical conditioning. Kids were awarded tokens whenever they did something nice. And they could use these tokens to buy something from the school store.

The classrooms also conducted special events to recognize kids who had done something nice as well as consistently displayed good behaviour.

This positive conditioning drastically reduced instances of bullying in the school. People learnt when they were rewarded.

Business coaches say something similar. The best meetings that improve morale are those that spend 80% time on what went well, and only 20% on what went wrong. Just recognizing and rewarding good behaviour explicitly makes people modify their behaviour.

Beware the overjustification effect

Rewards can have their own unintended consequences however. External rewards can decrease a person’s internal motivation to do things. Mark Lepper and his colleagues did an experiment that showed how rewards can reduce behaviour.

Preschool kids were divided into 2 groups. One group was always given a “good player” certificate after drawing. The other group didn’t receive any reward or recognition. The kids who were given certificates didn’t draw in their free time compared to the kids who didn’t receive any certificates.

So what can you do to overcome the overjustification effect?

  1. Reward intermittently. Surprise people on their good behaviour with rewards from time to time. Not every time.
  2. Reward them with words. Give them encouragement. Not goodies and gifts.
  3. Reward improvement. Don’t reward good performance, only reward improvement in performance.

The Qin’s managed to build the great wall of China to protect themselves from outside enemies. But disintegrated from within because of draconian punishments. 

The Han dynasty that followed the Qin dynasty learned from their downfall. They adopted a more moderate approach and integrated Confucianism – which brought on the golden age of China!

Action Summary:

  • You can’t change behaviour with punishments or criticism. You need better tools.
  • Most people have the ability to self correct. They just need time and space for reflection. 
  • Encouragement is a far better tool than criticism. Encourage when people are on time, instead of punishing them when they are late. Give reward and recognition intermittently, and on improvement.