Crime and punishment

Longer sentences didn’t reduce crime as much as expected because criminals aren’t good at thinking about the future; criminal types have problems forecasting and they have difficulty regulating their emotions and controlling their impulses. In the heat of the moment, the threat of future punishment vanishes from the calculus of decision. Thus, rather than deterring (much) crime, longer sentences simply filled the prisons. As if that weren’t bad enough, by exposing more people to criminal peers and by making it increasingly difficult for felons to reintegrate into civil society, longer sentences increased recidivism.
Instead of thinking about criminals as rational actors, we should think about criminals as children. In this light, consider the “Becker approach” to parenting. Punishing children is costly so to reduce that cost, ignore a child’s bad behavior most of the time but when it’s most convenient give the kid a really good spanking or put them in time out for a very long time. Of course, this approach leads to disaster–indeed, it’s precisely this approach that leads to criminality in later life.
So what is the recommended parenting approach? I don’t want to get into a debate over spanking, timeouts, and reasoning but one thing all recommendations have in common is that the consequences for inappropriate behavior should be be quick, clear, and consistent. Quick responses help not just because children have “high discount rates” (better thought of as difficulty integrating their future selves into a consistent whole but “high discount rates” will do as short hand) but even more importantly because a quick response helps children to understand the relationship between behavior and consequence. Prior to Becker there was Becaaria and in Beccarian theory, people must learn to associate crime with punishment. When responses aren’t quick, children, just like scientists, have difficulty learning cause and effect. Quick is thus one way of lowering cognitive demands and making consequences clear.

Alex Tabarrok on what Gary Becker got wrong about crime and punishment. A great post with lots of broadly applicable wisdom.

I try to apply the same principle of quick, clear, and consistent to the feedback I provide to my teams at work. Much of white collar work, including product management, tends to have slow feedback loops. Often the time between when you come up with an idea and when it ships and elicits feedback from consumers is months. That means very little of that work falls into the category of deliberate practice. Post-mortems, if they even occur, take place long after the key decisions were made.

Some of that is unavoidable, but much of it just requires a change in habit as managers. If you have feedback to share with a team member, share it as soon as possible. Someone didn't lead a meeting as efficiently as possible? Grab them right after the meeting for a quick chat. Have a presentation ready? Practice on someone as soon as possible and gather their immediate feedback.

The higher the cadence of these practice and feedback loops, the more rapid the improvement. Not all such work can be transformed into deliberate practice, but the amount that can be is non-trivial.

For most people, delivering feedback at such a cadence does not feel comfortable or normal in a white collar work environment; it feels paternalistic, even arrogant, and it still does not come naturally to introverts like myself. Certainly many aren't ready to receive notes at such a cadence, either. Much of this may stem from underestimating the amount of rapid feedback and deliberate practice one spends time on in other crafts, like music, sports, cooking, and so on. Going to an arts school helps. I've never received as much feedback as frequently as I did in my undergraduate creative writing classes or in film school.