Speeding tickets are commonly used as an example in learning theory textbooks. But I’m going to disagree with the typical classification because of my own experience. Here’s a true story.
When I was about 20, I was driving in my hometown. I was home from college and driving down my own street. I think I was going about 45. I think the speed limit was 35. I don’t remember why I was speeding. I didn’t commonly drive fast. But that day I did.
I heard a siren and caught my breath. Looked in the rearview mirror. There was a police car behind me, lights flashing and siren blaring. It took a moment to realize that I was the target. My heart started beating fast and I got shaky. It took a while before there was a good place to pull off the road. I started to panic, fearing the officer would think I was trying to flee. But I got off the road as soon as I could. I parked, still shaky, and rolled down my window. I don’t remember what the male officer said, but I had been speeding and he was giving me a ticket.
I am not crier, but I started to cry. I was scared and humiliated. Then further humiliated because I was crying and couldn’t stop. Then worried that he thought I was crying strategically, to get out of the ticket. I wasn’t. I was just that upset.
But I was lucky. I was a young white, privileged female, moderately attractive if a little nerdish. I was in very little danger, compared, say, to any person of color. Being stopped by a police officer can be lethal for some people. Probably not for my demographic, and frankly, it wasn’t that type of fear. I wasn’t afraid for my life or personal safety. But a run-in with an authority figure where I was in the wrong still scared the holy bejeezus out of me.
I think the ticket was $50, a fair amount for those times and my college student budget. I received the written ticket, an attached envelope, and instructions to pay before a deadline several weeks away. I paid it.
Did I Stop Speeding?
As I mentioned, I generally observed the speed limit. But yes, there was a behavior change. I was extra careful on that street and in my hometown in general for several years afterward. I paid extra close attention to the posted speed limits. So although the behavior didn’t generalize as much as the authorities might have desired, I was indeed punished for speeding. My behavior of speeding reduced. I didn’t want to get caught and pulled over again.
What Kind of Punishment Was It?
It was positive punishment.
Positive punishment: Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.
What was added? A scary, humiliating stop by a police officer. This was definitely an aversive experience for me.
But Wait, That’s Not What the Learning Theory Books Say!
Speeding tickets and other types of fines are often presented as examples of the operant conditioning process of negative punishment.
Negative punishment: Something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.
What’s removed? Money! Your money is taken away contingent on an incident of speeding. This is with the presumed intent of reducing speeding behavior. Negative punishment is also called a response cost.
So a ticket with a fine may be an example of negative punishment for some people, but that’s not what made me reduce my speeding.
If you aren’t bothered by authority figures or if you are on friendly terms with the officer who stopped you, the interaction itself may not be aversive. But the amount of the ticket could be hard on your budget, even catastrophic. It could prompt you to change your behavior. For me, the money was painful, but the interaction had a larger effect on my behavior.
What If There Is No Behavior Change?
OK, in the negative punishment scenario, how likely is the behavior to change? How effective is the fine? Obviously, the results will vary from person to person, but there is a problem with the timing. Consequences are most effective when they follow a behavior immediately. But speeding ticket fines don’t usually do that. You are usually handed a ticket with an address or attached envelope. There is some legal code on there to reference what law you are accused of breaking. You usually have a couple of weeks to get the money to the local government or dispute the ticket and get a court date.
We can certainly understand the connection between speeding and paying the money but it doesn’t pack a big punch as a consequence because of that time lag. The time between behavior and consequence is one of the crucial factors determining whether a consequence is effective. In almost all cases, it needs to be short.
But sometimes the fine can be immediate. Once I was traveling driving across the country with a friend who got stopped on the highway in a speed trap. It was in Kentucky or Virginia. The officer pulled over and corralled two cars at once (both with out of state license plates) and led us both to the station. It soon became clear that we would have to pay a large fine then and there to be able to go on our way. The alternative was to come back to the same town at some date in the future. Who can do that when they are driving through? In that experience, the loss of the money was immediate. But hopefully, that is unusual. (It was also a scary experience.)
I wonder how often behavior changes because of the fine with the envelope in the mail scenario.
The Effects of Consequences Vary
I’ve related my personal speeding ticket story above. Someone else’s might be very different. The interaction might not bother them. Or there might not be any human interaction at all if they were “caught” by a programmed camera and mailed a ticket. On the other hand, a person without white privilege would be justifiably much more frightened than I was by being stopped.
For some people, the loss of the money could indeed be a driving force for behavior change. But I think overall, the speeding ticket example is a poor example for the learning theory books because 1) it skips the experience of receiving the ticket, which can be very aversive; 2) there is usually a time lag between the behavior and the response cost of paying the fine; and 3) being stopped by a police officer is a politically charged issue right now.
Further Reading and Discussion
After writing this, I discovered a very nice piece that analyzes several of the behaviors and consequences related to receiving a traffic ticket. If I had seen this, I might not have written mine! The author concludes that the purpose of traffic tickets is not to change behavior. Take a look. It gave me some new realizations on the topic.
I’d love to hear others’ experiences. Anybody out there make a long-lasting behavior change because of getting a fine? Oh, and drive safely!
Copyright 2018 Eileen Anderson