Insufficient justification

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Insufficient justification (insufficient punishment) is a phenomenon under the realm of social psychology. It synthesizes theories of cognitive dissonance and internal vs. external justification. Essentially, insufficient justification is when an individual utilizes internal motivation to justify a behavior. It is most commonly seen in insufficient punishment, which is the dissonance experienced when individuals lack sufficient external justification for having resisted a desired activity or object, usually resulting in individuals' devaluing the forbidden activity or object.[1] That is, when an individual can't come up with an external reason as to why they resisted doing something they wanted to, he or she decides to derogate the activity. Mild punishment will cause a more lasting behavioral change than severe punishment because internal justification is stronger than external justification.


In 1963, Elliot Aronson and J. Merrill Carlsmith conducted an experiment with pre-school-age children. The researchers started by analyzing how people respond to punishment for doing something they enjoy; humans comply with a very severe punishment, but it doesn't stop them from enjoying the activity and wanting to do it again. Since they will probably try to do the desirable activity again, someone trying to prevent them from doing so must work harder to enact social control.

Thus, Aronson and Carlsmith thought that if they could convince the subjects that they did not in fact like this activity that they previously enjoyed, they would be more likely to obey. In other words, they would change their cognition in order to reduce dissonance, or the uncomfortable feeling when our actions are not in line with our cognitions. (In this case, we want to be doing something desirable and we are not).

Aronson and Carlsmith then examine the idea of cognitive rearrangement in terms of doing an unpleasant activity. When we do something we don't want to do, we give ourselves a positive reason for why we do it. For example, if a person is forced to eat a food they don't like, they might internally justify eating it by telling themselves that it is healthy, a positive attribute.

The researchers hypothesized that the opposite effect would occur for punishment. That is, if you don't give someone an external reason for not doing a desirable activity, they will construct an internal reason for why they didn't really even like it in the first place. For example, if one is threatened with mild punishment for eating enjoyable food, you'll tell yourself that it's not really that good anyway.

Thus, the researchers conducted their experiments with the preschooler children, intending on threatening them with either mild or severe punishment if they played with a desirable toy. Then, they would ask the children how desirable the toy was after they were not allowed to play with it.

The researchers devised a method to have the children rank the toys from least desirable to most desirable. Then they told the children they would be back but before they left, they told the children to not play with the most desirable toy. They threatened half the children with mild punishment and the other half with severe punishment. Afterward, the experimenters returned to the children and asked them to re-rank the toys. On average, the most favored toy decreased in favorability to the children threatened mildly and the most favored toy increased in favorability to the children threatened severely. Thus, the children experienced cognitive dissonance as to why they were not playing with the favorable toy, so they justified their non-action by convincing themselves that the toy must have been unfavorable in the first place.

The researchers concluded that this insufficient punishment is an effective means of inducing the formation of values in children.[2]

Theoretical approaches and empirical findings[edit]

Insufficient justification and insufficient punishment are broad terms. They encompass and involve ideas ranging from operant conditioning and behavior psychology to cognitive dissonance and intrinsic desires/motivation. According to the American Heritage Medical Dictionary, operant conditioning is "the process of behavior modification in which a subject is encouraged to behave in a desired manner through positive or negative reinforcement, so that the subject comes to associate the pleasure or displeasure of the reinforcement with the behavior." This term is an example of, and serves as a representative of, behavior psychology as a whole. Also, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, cognitive dissonance is, "a psychological conflict resulting from incongruent beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously." These terms provide support and understanding of insufficient justification and punishment which are simply extensions of how and why humans behave the ways that they do in response to a range of stimuli. Specific theoretical approaches that will be outlined below spawn from researchers and scientists who have chosen to study this idea further through empirical studies. Although various studies have been conducted on insufficient justification, the four most relevant to daily life will be discussed at length.

In the first two studies, the subjects are children and their reactions to specific threats. First, as discussed in the background, researchers Aronson and Carlsmith (1963)[2] conducted a study using 22 preschool children, 11 females and 11 males ranging from ages 3.6 to 4.8 years, and their desires to play with toys in the face of mild and severe verbal threats of punishment. Experimenters told the children that if they played with specific toys that they would either not like for the children to play with certain toys (mild threat) or that they would be very angry (severe threat). From this study, it was discovered that mild threats of punishment for playing with a desired toy would lead to a devaluation of that toy while severe threats would not. Therefore, the subject's relative ranking on the toy's attractiveness did not decrease with a severe threat but did decrease with a mild threat. The results indicate that when punishing children, one should use mild threats instead of severe threats because these methods will only inflict external pressure which, in turn, undermines the value of intrinsic motivation to behave in the desired way.

Similarly, in a study conducted by Abelson, Lepper, and Zanna (1973),[3] it was found that kindergarten children reacted the same way. More specifically, 52 elementary school children, 23 males and 29 females with a mean age of six years, were tested using similar methodology as Aronson and Carlsmith (1963). When toys such as trains, slinkies, and robots were placed on a table in front of the children, they were asked which of the toys they preferred depending on which threats they received. Also, sticker reminders were placed on the "prohibited" toys. The conclusions indicated that the severe threats produced significantly less derogation for the toys than the mild threats did. From these two studies, it is evident that children are not going to respond the way the punisher is intending for them to if the punishment appears to be severe. Instead, it appears to be more effective to use mild threats to produce the intended behavior and thus, sufficient amount of intrinsic motivation. Thus, although these studies are extremely similar, it further reinforces the relevance of insufficient punishment. These studies prove to be useful in terms of self-control patterns in young children.

This concept of insufficient justification stretches into the reality of adults as well. In the third study that will be discussed here, research was done within the workplace environment in terms of jobs and the subsequent rewards given to them which, in turn, motivate them. According to Pfeffer and Lawler (1980),[4] the effects of extrinsic rewards and behavioral commitment on attitude towards specific tasks in an organization were demonstrated. Using a sample of 4,058 college and university faculty members, it was discovered that when individuals were committed to tasks, they develop more favorable attitudes toward that task with lower extrinsic rewards rather than higher extrinsic rewards. This study supports the two following ideas. First, there are strong effects of social context on the perceptions of the work place environment and second, there are strong effects of the individual's own past behaviors on their behaviors and attitudes. Therefore, the concept of insufficient justification can be seen in adults and their careers as they continually connect their social environments with their tasks at hand.

The last example of insufficient justification lies in the idea of criminal justice. Although this topic seems strictly governmental, it proves to involve a great deal of social psychology. Meares, Kahan, and Katyal (2004)[5] discuss what it means for authority to dictate the proper behavior. They go further to say that, according to the "group value" model, "the use of procedures regarded as fair by all parties facilitates the maintenance of positive relationships among group members, preserving the fabric of society, even in the face of the conflict of interest that exists in any group" (p. 1194). Although this specific example relates to groups, this concept translates into behaviors in general. When criminals understand that authorities are simply enforcing the law because they are instructed to do so, they believe it is fair and they therefore comply. Furthermore, Meares and his fellow researchers go on to say, "In contrast to the individual who complies with the law because she is responding to externally imposed punishments, the individual who complies for normative reasons does so because she feels an internal obligation" (p. 1194). In other words, criminals who are given minimal punishment tend to view it as fair and therefore are more likely to find value intrinsically.


Real world applications of this theory can be observed amongst children and adults. With children and their motivation to comply with rules, the concept of insufficient justification should serve as a resource for parents, teachers, and those who are in positions of authority. Presented with strong external rewards, strong external punishment, or strong external threats, children are less likely internally motivated to perform with the desired behaviors. For instance, when encouraging a child to play a sport, parents should use minimal force, threats, and rewards in order to encourage self-motivation. This means encouraging one's children towards establishing ambition for accomplishments versus coercing or bribing them into action.

In regards to adults, this principle can be applied in the professional workplace. Employees are less likely to work hard and often less likely to enjoy their work if offered high external rewards. This being that employees are less obligated to internally justify their motives for working hard, because the external payoff is so great. More specifically, this theory can be applied to pay plans, benefit options, and promotions. Firms and corporations should be aware of how much they are giving to their employees, and executives especially, so that maximum productivity can be achieved.

Another real-world application of the insufficient punishment theory involves a study done on honor code policies at military versus regular universities. The study was called Dissonance and the Honor System: Extending the Severity of Threat Phenomenon.[6] The study discussed the consideration of ethical responsibility and academic dishonesty in collegiate settings as something of great concern. Recent estimates suggest that up to 70% of college students cheat at some point prior to graduation.[7] When put under the honor system, students are expected to uphold their personal sense of moral responsibilities. As discussed earlier, the threat of severe punishment restrains behavior on the basis of avoiding punishment, and therefore people are more likely to engage in the prohibited behavior when consequences are lowered. Inversely, when punishment is low and cognitive dissonance is high, people must internally justify their reasons for not engaging in a prohibited behavior. In context with this study, students that are used to being threatened with severe punishment for academic dishonesty are more likely to be dishonest when the immediate threat of punishment is not present; whereas students that do not face the pressure of punishment act consistently with and without the threat of immediate punishment.

In this specific study, researchers dropped money in open and private settings of a private and a military university. Researches hypothesized that if severe threats of punishment result only in public compliance, then there should be very few instances of people from the military school taking money that they found on the ground in the public setting. However, there should be more instances of people taking the money in private settings due to lack of internal justification. Furthermore, the internalization that arises from mild threats should lead to no difference in outcomes between public versus private settings at the nonmilitary school.[7] Researches found that the setting (public vs. private) did not influence whether participants at the nonmilitary school (with a less stringent honor code) picked up the money, which was consistent with their hypotheses. In addition they found that public behavior at a school governed by a zero-tolerance honor (military school) was very inconsistent with behavior in private situations. In private situations at the military school students were much more likely to take the money, whereas in public not one student picked it up. The consistencies between researchers hypotheses and their findings imply that harsh punishment works with the use of immediate threats, but that resources for detecting infractions and applying the punishments have to be in place in order to monitor the enforcement of these rules. Otherwise, when left alone, those under these threats may revert to the prohibited behavior. Ideally, as the principle of insufficient justification advocates, the students should be given the opportunity to establish a stronger sense of internal dissonance in order to prevent this kind of dishonest behavior.


Insufficient punishment is not bulletproof. As with psychology in general, all concepts and phenomena are subject to change and dispute. There are also certain instances in which issues may be present. An experiment was done in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with elementary students to test the dissonance theory Aronson and Carlsmith proposed, which was discussed in the background.[8] They tested severe threat with high and low detection possibilities as well as mild threat with high and low detection. The results showed that there was not much difference between severe and mild threats with the children when playing with the forbidden toy. The table below shows the percentage of the children who complied with each request to not play with the favorite toy. It shows that both level of threats resulted in similar amount of compliance.

Probability of detection Severe threat Mild threat
High 90% 90%
Low 80% 45%

These results do provide some new hypotheses. It was previously shown that economic status mattered because children in lower economic status show more devaluation for the forbidden toy under severe threat.[8] The children in this experiment were from lower middle class in Brazil meaning that they would most likely show this devaluation. Another major difference is cultural. Brazilians and Americans have different dissonances because of the different culture. Children that grow up in America may have grown up in familial environments. This means that the parents may have taught their children that certain actions are wrong and others are important. The children in Brazil could have been taught differently and this would cause the cultural differences in this study. This shows that insufficient punishment has boundaries and most likely only works for children of higher social economic status in America. These two new hypotheses could be considered throughout and is an exception to insufficient punishment.


The fact that insufficient justification as well as insufficient punishment is relevant in children, adults, and criminals indicates that its implications are widespread and therefore relevant. These concepts are a part of social psychology as a whole. All humans will react relatively similarly to certain stimuli, and from these studies, it is evident that the less threat or punishment, the more likely humans will comply with demands.


  1. ^ Aronson, Elliot, Timothy D. Wilson, and Robin M. Akert. Social Psychology. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2010. 163-65. Print.
  2. ^ a b Aronson, E., & Carlsmith, J.M. (1963). Effect Of The Severity Of Threat On The Devaluation Of Forbidden Behavior. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 66, 584-588.
  3. ^ Abelson, R. P., Lepper, M. R., & Zanna, M. P. (1973). Attentional Mechanisms in Children's Devaluation of a Forbidden Activity in a Forced-Compliance Situation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 28, 335-359.
  4. ^ Pfeffer, J. & Lawler, J. (1980). Effects of Job Alternatives, Extrinsic Rewards, and Behavioral Commitment on Attitude Toward the Organization: A Field Test of the Insufficient Justification Paradigm. Administrative Science Quarterly, 25, 38-56. Retrieved on March 30, 2011 from JStor [1]
  5. ^ Meares, T. L, Kahan, D. M., & Katyal, N. (2004). Updating the study of punishment. Faculty Scholarship Series, 1171-1209.
  6. ^ Dissonance and the Honor System: Extending the Severity of Threat Phenomenon by James T Gire and Tyson D Williams, printed in The Journal of Social Psychology
  7. ^ a b McCabe & Trevino, 1993; McCabe, Trevino, & Butterfield, 2001; Whitley, 1998
  8. ^ a b Blaggio, A., & Rodrigues, A. (1971). Behaviorial Compliance and Devaluation of the Forbidden Object as a Function of Probability of Detection and Severity of Threat. Developmental Psychology, 4, 320-323.