Duval on Moral Epistemology, pt. 3.2: Conservatives and Corporal Punishment  

Duval on Moral Epistemology, pt. 3.2: Conservatives and Corporal Punishment   October 13, 2016

Following on from my last post, wherein I noted the demographics of American Conservatism’s core, and picking up on a thread that was introduced with attachment and religious affiliation, I will now look at the seemingly close, yet indirect relationship between Evangelicalism and corporal punishment.

Most Born-Again Christians (predominantly Evangelicals) agree that spanking is an acceptable form of punishment, as do Republicans – both around 80% – and a majority of all non-Born Again Christians and Democrats – both around 65% – do, too (Enten, 2014[1]). Support for spanking is also strongest in the South, and weakest in the North-East. This distribution follows Evangelical populations. However, these facts are separate from each other. That is to say that, the trend holds true for support for spanking, when other demographic factors are controlled for in a regression (ibid.). For example, minorities spank more than whites, but minorities lean Democrat more than whites, and so on.

 I established in my previous post that Evangelicalism and conservatism are linked with poor educational outcomes, though I make no comment about the strength of this relationship, or the direction of causation. I have also established that support for corporal punishment is greater amongst Born-Again Christians and Republicans as compared to non-Born Again Christians and Democrats. One reason why Protestants in general may be more oriented towards corporal punishment is that Protestants (and not just Evangelicals) tend to be dispositionally focused (Li, 2012[2]). This means that Protestants are less inclined to pay attention to context or circumstance, and presume that a person’s misfortune is due to some personality flaw instead. (To clarify, this is with regard to people assessing other people, and has nothing to do with personal assessment, i.e. the guilt classically associated with people of Jewish and Catholic faiths.) A dispositionally focused Protestant parent will probably be more inclined to punish a child, because they’re more inclined to see them as culpable (and be more worried for the state of their soul). So let’s look at the link between corporal punishment and poor educational outcomes.

Straus and Paschall (2009[3]) found that, when controlling for all other demographics and parenting behaviours, “the more [corporal punishment] experienced, the more [the punished children] fell behind children who were not spanked” (p. 459). In cases where it was the father that dished out the physical punishment (a signifier of strong traditional gender roles), MacKenzie (2013[4]) found that significant levels of corporal punishment at age five were associated with poor vocabulary scores four years later, it was also associated with poor mathematical abilities (Bodovski & Youn, 2010[5]), and thus, not surprisingly, low general academic achievement (Margolin et al., 2010[6]).

Of course, it’s difficult to draw conclusive links between Evangelicalism, educational attainment, and corporal punishment, given the available material. No studies that I could find looked explicitly at all three. This cluster of findings is, however, suggestive. Breyer and MacPhee (2015[7]) found that “community factors related to social disorganization may be more important than religious or political affiliation in putting children at risk for maltreatment.” This suggests that religion is adhered to in an attempt to protect the individual from the perceived state of society, and frustrations with society are taken out on the children. This reflexive, self-protective religiosity is not necessarily intended to improve society. Gregory Paul (2009, p. 398[8]) makes this explicit:

The antagonistic relationship between better socioeconomic conditions and intense popular faith may prevent the existence of nations that combine the two factors. The nonuniversality of strong religious devotion, and the ease with which large populations abandon serious theism when conditions are sufficiently benign, refute hypotheses that religious belief and practice are the normal, deeply set human mental state, whether they are superficial or natural in nature. Instead popular religion is usually a superficial and flexible psychological mechanism for coping with the high levels of stress and anxiety produced by sufficiently dysfunctional social and especially economic environments. Popular nontheism is a similarly causal response to superior conditions.

Finally, recall that Liberals, according to Lakoff, tend toward a nurturing approach to parenting (a fact reflected in the attachment literature that I presented in my previous post). So, if they use corporal punishment at all, it is likely to be sparingly (in direct contravention to a certain well-known Biblical edict). Unfortunately there is relatively little work clearly separating occasional spanking and an ongoing program of spanking (Bottoms, et al., 2015[9]). There is only slightly more differentiation between spanking and more severe physical abuse. (The work that there is seems to focus on outcomes, and will be covered in the next section.) There are numerous cases of children being neglected and abused, sometimes to death, in line with highly conservative Christian ideas of childrearing and punishment. The three deaths linked to Michael and Debi Pearl’s book ‘To Train up a Child’ being obvious examples[10]. This book supposedly has 1.5 million copies in print, and “the author tells parents to use a switch, cold baths, withhold food and force children outside in cold weather as punishment”[11]. As such, whilst the 80% of Born Again Christians that believe that corporal punishment is acceptable is not significantly greater than the 65% of non-Born Again Christians who agree, it seems likely that there are significant differences in the type and degree of punishment that those percentages refer to, as the strong gender roles statistics mentioned previously suggest, and as we will see in the coming section.

The Impact of Corporal Punishment

 It is, well, striking, that three, four, and five year-olds seem to be amongst the most frequent targets of some level of corporal punishment (see Figure 2), suggesting that such punishment is an outlet for parental frustration as much, if not more, than it is for punishment or behaviour modification. One must assume that at least some of the children who were hit in each of these years were hit severely. I’m unclear as to how hitting an infant could be anything other than severe – and pointless – even if only intended as a “tap.” This probably has on-flow effects in later childhood.

Screen Shot 10-13-16 at 01.09 PM

“Figure [2] shows the percentage of a nationally representative sample of one thousand parents in the United States in 1995 who had used Corporal Punishment in the previous twelve months.” – From Straus (2010[12]).

Recall from a previous post that the attachment bond qualitatively shifts at around the age of three, such that the child learns to wait for the attachment figure to be available for reciprocation of attachment behaviours. From around the age of five, attachment lessens as children become more able to spend extended time away from the attachment figure, relying instead upon more abstract and indirect aspects of the attachment relationship. As I previously established, children who grow up to be conservative were more likely to be resistantly attached, and are fearful even in an established attachment dynamic (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991[13]), or permanently looking for an alternative attachment figure (Koleva & Rip, 2009[14]). It is possible that children between the ages of three and five are actually being punished for attachment-seeking behaviours that have gone unfulfilled to that point, or that have been met with physical punishment in the preceding years.

In Straus’s (2010) study, as shown in Figure 2, everything from a single instance to daily spankings, over the 12 months leading up to the survey, is bucketed together. As such we cannot distinguish a single instance from an ongoing program of abuse, much less the points in between, and it seems likely that this is going to have an impact on outcomes. Tomoda, et al. (2009[15]), do make a clear distinction between occasional instances of corporal punishment and an ongoing program (three years of monthly instances of harsh corporal punishment):

“The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) considers spanking with an open hand for the purpose of behavior modification to be an acceptable form of punishment. However, this form of punishment becomes unacceptable if it involves use of an object, extends to regions beyond buttocks and extremities, is conducted out of anger, or results in injury” (p. 2).

This study found that those who had experienced harsh corporal punishment on an ongoing and protracted basis had notable reductions in gray matter volume in both the left and right medial frontal gyri, and in the right anterior cingulate gyrus.

With regard to the Anterior Cingulate Gyrus, Amodio et al. (2007), found that “greater liberalism was associated with stronger conflict-related anterior cingulate activity, suggesting greater neurocognitive sensitivity to cues for altering a habitual response pattern.” There is also evidence that the Anterior Cingulate Gyrus “emerges as a key nexus for the computation of shared experience and social reward” (Chang et al., 2013, p. 1[16]). Indeed, large swathes of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex seem to point to behaviours that classically differentiate between liberals and conservatives more generally. The other brain structure that is repeatedly found to be important in this differentiation is the amygdala, which plays a significant role in fear processing (e.g. Kanai, Feilden, Firth & Rees, 2011[17]). In the case of the amygdala, hyper-sensitivity to sudden noises and threatening visual images is enough to distinguish between liberals and conservatives (Oxley, et al., 2008[18]), even images that are explicitly non-political (Ahn, et al., 2014[19]).

In a household predicated on strong traditional gender roles a single common phrase could account for the development of a heightened fear response – ‘just you wait until your father gets home’ – a situation explicitly attached to reduced scholastic achievement (MacKenzie, 2013[20]). Couple this with threats of hell (a belief that Protestants hold more strongly than Catholics: Pew, n.d.[21]), a predisposition to disproportionately blame the individual (and failing to take context into account) and it would be surprising if this did not impact maturing brains.

When punishment becomes abuse

According to Zolotor, et al. (2008[22]) around 2% of children in the US experience one or more instances of being kicked, beaten, burned, hit with an object on some part of the body that is not the buttocks, or being shaken (if under the age of two), in a given year, despite not receiving any form of ongoing corporal punishment. In cases where children do receive corporal punishment, and to extremes, such as spankings on a near weekly basis, or where an implement is used as part of the punishment (regardless of how often), the chances of the child also suffering the aforementioned types of abuse rises to 12%. Afifi, et al. (2012[23]), in a sample of almost 35,000 individuals, found that harsh physical punishment, even when allowing for potentially causal or aggravating factors, such as “socio-demographic variables and family history of dysfunction” (p. 184), accounts for 2-5% of Axis I, and 4-7% of Axis II mental disorders. Axis I[24] includes clinical disorders, such as depression, anxiety, anorexia and bulimia nervosa, and so on. Axis II[25] includes disorders, such as paranoid, schizoid, schizotypal, borderline, antisocial, narcissistic, histrionic, avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders.

In the next installment I will look at the transition between corporal punishment in the home, and corporal punishment in school, as well as the effect of a punitive and authoritarian learning environment.

[1] http://fivethirtyeight.com/datalab/americans-opinions-on-spanking-vary-by-party-race-region-and-religion/

[2] Li, Johnson, Cohen, Williams, Knowles & Chen (2011). Fundamental(ist) attribution error: Protestants are dispositionally focused. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology:102(2): 281-90. doi: 10.1037/a0026294. http://socialecology.uci.edu/sites/socialecology.uci.edu/files/users/eknowles/li.johnson.cohen_.williams.knowles.chen_.2011.pdf

[3] Straus, M. A., & Paschall, M. J. (2009). Corporal punishment by mothers and development of children’s cognitive ability: A longitudinal study of two nationally representative age cohorts. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma, 18(5), 459-483.

[4] MacKenzie, M. J., Nicklas, E., Waldfogel, J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2013). Spanking and child development across the first decade of life. Pediatrics, 132(5), e1118-e1125. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2013/10/16/peds.2013-1227.full.pdf

[5] Bodovski, K., & Youn, M. J. (2010). Love, discipline and elementary school achievement: The role of family emotional climate. Social Science Research, 39(4), 585-595.


[6] Margolin, G., Vickerman, K. A., Oliver, P. H., & Gordis, E. B. (2010). Violence exposure in multiple interpersonal domains: Cumulative and differential effects. Journal of Adolescent Health, 47(2), 198-205.

[7] Breyer, R. J., & MacPhee, D. (2015). Community characteristics, conservative ideology, and child abuse rates. Child abuse & neglect, 41, 126-135.

[8] Paul, G. (2009). The chronic dependence of popular religiosity upon dysfunctional psychosociological conditions. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 398-441. http://evp.sagepub.com/content/7/3/147470490900700305.full.pdf

[9] Bottoms, B. L., Goodman, G. S., Tolou-Shams, M., Diviak, K. R., & Shaver, P. R. (2015). Religion-Related Child Maltreatment: A Profile of Cases Encountered by Legal and Social Service Agencies. Behavioral Sciences & The Law, 33(4), 561-579.

[10] http://www.salon.com/2010/02/23/no_greater_joy/

[11] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism/2013/08/hana-williams-abuse-and-murder-trial-ongoing.html

[12] Straus, M. A. (2010). Prevalence, societal causes, and trends in corporal punishment by parents in world perspective. Law and Contemporary Problems, 73(2), 1-30.

[13] Bartholomew, K., & Horowitz, L. M. (1991). Attachment styles among young adults: a test of a four-category model. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 61(2), 226-244.

[14] Koleva, S. P., & Rip, B. (2009). Attachment style and political ideology: A review of contradictory findings. Social Justice Research, 22(2-3), 241-258.

[15] Tomoda, A., Suzuki, H., Rabi, K., Sheu, Y. S., Polcari, A., & Teicher, M. H. (2009). Reduced prefrontal cortical gray matter volume in young adults exposed to harsh corporal punishment. Neuroimage, 47, T66-T71.

[16] Chang, S. W., Gariépy, J. F., & Platt, M. L. (2013). Neuronal reference frames for social decisions in primate frontal cortex. Nature Neuroscience, 16(2), 243-250.

[17] Kanai, R., Feilden, T., Firth, C., & Rees, G. (2011). Political orientations are correlated with brain structure in young adults. Current biology, 21(8), 677-680.

[18] Oxley, D. R., Smith, K. B., Alford, J. R., Hibbing, M. V., Miller, J. L., Scalora, M., … & Hibbing, J. R. (2008). Political attitudes vary with physiological traits. Science, 321(5896), 1667-1670.


[19] Ahn, W. Y., Kishida, K. T., Gu, X., Lohrenz, T., Harvey, A., Alford, J. R., … & Montague, P. R. (2014). Nonpolitical images evoke neural predictors of political ideology. Current Biology, 24(22), 2693-2699.


[20] MacKenzie, M. J., Nicklas, E., Waldfogel, J., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2013). Spanking and child development across the first decade of life. Pediatrics, 132(5), e1118-e1125. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/pediatrics/early/2013/10/16/peds.2013-1227.full.pdf

[21] http://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/belief-in-hell/

[22] Zolotor, A. J., Theodore, A. D., Chang, J. J., Berkoff, M. C., & Runyan, D. K. (2008). Speak softly—and forget the stick: Corporal punishment and child physical abuse. American journal of preventive medicine, 35(4), 364-369.

[23] Afifi, T. O., Mota, N. P., Dasiewicz, P., MacMillan, H. L., & Sareen, J. (2012). Physical punishment and mental disorders: results from a nationally representative US sample. Pediatrics, 130(2), 184-192.

[24] http://www.psyweb.com/DSM_IV/jsp/Axis_I.jsp

[25] http://www.psyweb.com/DSM_IV/jsp/Axis_II.jsp

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