The Human Need to Punish


Think about something the next time you want to needlessly honk your horn at someone else in the car.

Or make a snarky comment on someone’s blog post.

Or subtly insult someone else’s efforts.

Or dismiss someone else’s opinion.

Why do you feel the need to punish them?

Because that is what you’re doing.

When tearing someone else down needlessly, you justify it in your own mind by thinking ‘it’s for their own good. I’m helping them by forcing them away from their silly ideas.’

Is it? Are you really helping them to learn, or are you just making yourself feel taller by trying to make them feel shorter? Has anyone ever been convinced they are bad drivers by having another person drive reeaaaallllyy close to their bumper on the highway? Has a casual insult ever made you think ‘Well gee, I guess I AM an idiot and should go learn more’?

No. It’s just justification.

And is this the kind of person you want to be?

I try to avoid this as much as possible, but I still catch myself doing it from time to time. I don’t know if it’s hardwired into us as social humans, or if it’s just a flaw I deal with, but it’s a good thing to keep an eye on either way.

The reasons why we do things can set us free from them; otherwise we continue to spin our wheels out of habit, regardless of the mud we sling in the meantime.


  1. Very true. Sometimes when I'm reading through blogs and their comments, it seems like people comment just to let off steam, or at the very least, get a reaction. Any kind of reaction.

    I do think it's habit, as you say, more than it is genuine ill-meaning, but the effect is still the same.

    Is that your 'somone's-punishingly-me-needlessly' face? Mine's not half as pretty as that.

  2. I guess the flip side of the issue is our habit of giving wishy-washy feedback and calling it constructive criticism. There's got to be a middle ground where we can be direct and honest without being hurtful or making the other person get defensive. Not always easy to find though.

  3. Good point… Thanks for bringing this to the front of my mind. Very good reminder – be excellent to everyone.

  4. I try to avoid this too. It's a waste of energy to continually judge/criticize/punish other people just because they're not living up to your standards. The ego definitely loves to do this, but isn't it easier to nourish the ego by providing true value to someone instead of bringing them down?

  5. You're right – mud slinging is just a good way to get dirty yourself. It really doesn't help anyone out in the long run and can seriously sabotage your efforts in the future. The whole cliched “Be Positive” quip is nonetheless very good wisdom.

  6. You know what works great for driving? Talking the other drivers through their driving process. I swear…they can hear you even though you are talking in a normal volume and tone! :)

  7. Couldn't agree more. I often think about this. Almost every time I feel like making fun of or negatively judging someone or something it's to make me feel better. It's tough (and sometimes embarrassing) getting to this root, deep down motivation for punishing (I like that word for this), but if done it can really help you develop as a person. Great post.

  8. I think you're right on the money Colin. The human urge to punish has much more to do with venting frustration and ego tripping than attempting to improve something. Most “punishments” are just emotional outbursts.

    Nietzsche said, “Distrust all in whom the impulse to punish is powerful.” Good advice, I reckon.

  9. I've regretfully have found myself doing this.

    In my case and probably others, it is a result of something within myself.

  10. Excellent point to bring up, Colin! As always!

    Yes, why DO we feel the need to punish others?! I find it quite belittling and disruptive when I am the unfortunate recipient of someone else's temper tantrum. Not very fun!

    Of course, I am without fault here too. I do my fair share of slight comments (most unconsciously now since I've paid closer attention to what I say and how I say things to others) and then feel bad afterwards once I realized why the person is avoiding me or not opening up.

    It's the proverbial forbidden cookie jar. You're not supposed to, but you do it anyway. Then you run and hide in a corner somewhere and gobble the cookie, leaving only crumbs and a mess on your face as a result of your insidious tactics to try and get away with something you're not supposed to do in the first place.

    Ah, perhaps we'll never be free from the cookie jar! But we can try. The important lesson here is we MUST try. Try and be a better human being. Try and be a better friend. Try and be a better citizen. If we don't even attempt, there is no one left to blame but ourselves.

  11. I've actually had this thought a bunch of times. Why does it seem “natural” for us [more-so for some people] to just hurl insults, tear down and tell people that I'm somehow better than you. It's sort of sad.

  12. I always felt like it was some sort of defense mechanism. A good way to keep people at arm's length is to keep the snark at the ready. I'm really very good at this, and it's a trait that I've been trying to tame.

  13. Yeah, I think you hit the nail on the head. It makes us feel taller to knock others down, even if we're not consciously thinking of it that way.

  14. I'm a big proponent of the idea that if you're truly confident in yourself you never need to tear anyone else down or try to brag to build yourself up.

    It doesn't work all the time, but the more I make this a part of my default modus operandi, the more I'm able to avoid some of the casual self-build-ups that I tend to fall prey to!

  15. it's called predatory self esteem, and, like passive aggressive behavior, it's rampant in our culture.

    nice post.

  16. (insert snarky comment here)

    Just kidding & good post
    Being aware of when I'm impolite is actually something that I've recently been trying to improve in my own life.

  17. Great post. There is a difference between teaching someone a lesson and teaching them a lesson isn't there.

  18. Pingback: Do You Know Your Enemy? | Ophelias Webb

  19. Great post! I love this statement: “Has anyone ever been convinced they are bad drivers by having another person drive reeaaaallllyy close to their bumper on the highway?” So true!

    I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how this need to punish plays into our own growth or lack thereof: i.e., how our tendency to punish ourselves for our failures/shortcomings factors into our ability to change or succeed.

    Thanks for the food for thought!

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