On being the tree

An argument for (mostly) inflexible sanctions systems.

In a discussion of parenting styles, a friend (who prefers anonymity) wrote about an insight gleaned from a book on training dogs. It seems to be relevant to any situation where rules have to be enforced while maintaining goodwill between the enforcers and those subject to the rules.

A dog owner wrote in saying: I know I’m not supposed to let my dog pull uncontrollably when I’m walking him on a leash, but he pulls so hard I’m afraid he might choke and hurt himself. Nothing I can do seems to stop this.

The trainer answered: Try tying your dog to a tree, and see what happens. In all likelihood, the dog will not pull so hard that he chokes himself; he will recognize that the tree is immovable and adjust his behavior accordingly. If so, then whatever the dog’s problem is, it’s not that he has a compulsion to pull no matter what; it’s that he has figured out that he can game you.

Obviously, very few rules should be unbreakable no matter what. But many should be unbreakable under normal circumstances. While it’s always important to consider the possibility that now is one of those extremely rare cases in which important rules get to be broken, it’s also important, in general, to be the tree. Trees do not get into battles of wills with dogs. They are not trying to prove a point when they so annoyingly refuse to move. Screaming “if you loved me, you’d let me pull on my leash!” has no effect on them. They just are that way.

If possible, avoid the occasion for battles of will. When one arises, figure out, in consultation with your spouse, whether to bend the rules. But do not allow your kids to tyrannize you. It’s not good for them or you. But don’t enforce the rules as if it were personal, except on very rare occasions. Be the tree.

Some judges and probation officers resist the idea of swift-certain-mild sanctions for probation violations embodied in programs such as HOPE. They prize their discretion and want to be able to use their professional judgment. They also find the idea of formulaic sanctioning offensive because it fails to take account of individual circumstance.

But it seems to me that they’re missing the importance of being the tree. If sanctions are invariable consequences of violations, then the probationer has control of his environment:  it’s his behavior, not someone else’s whim, that dictates what happens. That “internal locus of control” is among the strongest predictors of successful behavior change in any domain.

What looks like discretion to the judge looks like randomness to the offender, who instead of avoiding sanctions by obeying the rules will tend to try to avoid them by figuring out how to game the system. And each sanction becomes both a personal affront – after all, the judge might have acted otherwise, and did act otherwise on other occasions and with other offenders – and a personal defeat.

“Be the tree” is, in some ways, very Taoist advice. I’m not sure where to find an adequate number of Taoist judges and probation officers; maybe it will help if some of them read the research.


Footnote If any reader can identify the dog-training book, I’d be happy to give credit for the insight to the original author. And no, this doesn’t mean that I think offenders are like children or animals; it means that I think that there’s a similarity among the responses of sentient organisms to their environments.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

19 thoughts on “On being the tree”

  1. I don’t think there’s any specific dog-training book – in fact it’s very common advice for dog owners to “be a tree”: the moment your dog pulls on the lead, just stop and “be a tree.” Or you can walk backwards so the dog has to go the opposite way from what it wanted. It didn’t really work for us, but maybe that’s because we weren’t consistent enough. I think I got tired of it taking 30 minutes to walk one block.

  2. If in a relationship with a dog, I am to set myself up as a tree, I should probably not complain too loudly at the inevitable sequel. 😉

    More seriously, this sounds on the face of it uncomfortably close to the zero-tolerance philosophy that has been turning the Anglosphere into such a civic paradise recently, and is vulnerable to an obvious doggy counter – that if you can’t easily game authority reactions, you invest in gaming the evidence or the letter of the rules instead. These don’t strike me as unambiguous improvements.

    Above all, any authority figure who is planning on being a tree had better make sure that they are not being one tree in a monstrous thicket: that is, that only the rules which are really really important get the insentient treatment, and that there are not very many of them. Any other way strikes me as less comparable to dog training via a tree, than to conditioning rats to run complicated mazes – an approach to one’s fellows which is not empowering at all, and heartily deserves to be peed upon.

    Desirable as consistency is, it has an evil habit of calling up hobgoblin hordes, and wants a pretty short leash of its own.

  3. It seems to me that you are putting yourself into agreement with Rudy Giuliani in his campaigns for civic tidiness and against windshield pests, and against Glenn Reynolds, who rails against traffic cameras. And, I think you are right on both counts: a continual stream of $30 tickets for having your car photoed going 65 in a 55 zone will be a lot more effective than one $250 ticket after ten uncorrected offenses, and New York got better when every little thing was sanctioned, but not very hard. Interesting company you are keeping.

  4. Mark: This may be the biggest barrier to the spread of HOPE probation — that judges are unwilling to relent on their individualized judgment. Similar problems occur in other fields. A mountain of research shows that predictions about patients made by actuarial data are superior to individual judgments made by clinicians who know them, but try to convince a clinician of that (“I know that in general this diagnosis normally predicts x, but in this particular case I can tell that..”). Same phenomenon occurs in the stock market, index funds do as well or better than funds made up of stocks selected by experts, yet even experts who recognize this can’t resist the idea that they can consistently beat the index funds by making personalized choices (80% lose money that way in a given year).

    And on the other point, offenders *are* like children. So are non-offenders. Adults are just tall children who owe money.

  5. That “internal locus of control” makes a lot of sense. It teaches responsible adaptation to the social structure. Professor Kleiman’s point applies to the relative merits of the market economy versus the command economy, seems to me. As Hayek observed in __The Road to Serfdom__ and in __The Constitution of Liberty__, without a market to generate impersonal values (market prices), authorities in a command economy must use their own values or assume some others. This turns control over resources into an endless argument.
    (Humphries): “…judges are unwilling to relent on their individualized judgment.
    Just like teachers who oppose credit by exam. Teachers need to be needed. Teachers don’t see how much easeir their own life would be if someone else built the hurdles and teachers just coached students in the skills needed to get over those hurdles.

  6. Mark…

    Quite a lovely quote indeed, with larger application I think…
    I emailed it to Barack with these questions:

    Dear President Willow…

    Why are you negotiating with dogs to prevent the default of the USA?
    Why did you not stand tall on something so fundamentally non-negotiable as the fiscal sovereignty of the USA?
    And why have you allowed Medicare and Social Security to become a bargaining chits in these very talks?
    Why did you continue to kick confrontation down the road into ever more dire situations?

    Your faith-based model of “we can disagree without being disagreeable” has failed us into the most disagreeable end game of all.
    Now you can’t even get a Noble Prize winner seated on a retired dog-catchers oversight committee…
    A scientist would have rejected your faith-based hypothesis two years ago and grown a backbone of strong wood.
    Now you’ve become just a Hooverish willow, blowing in a windstorm of Crazy.
    Trying your best not to get uprooted, hoping for better employment numbers, and praying for another four years.

    For shame,

  7. Koreyel, it depends on which Obama you are sending that letter to, about Marks’s swift and predictable consequences analogy, the candidate Obama, the one with fiece clear intellect, who defiantly didn’t believe in presidential signing statements,
    Boston, December 2007,

    “It is a clear abuse of power to use such [Presidential signing] statements as a license to evade laws that the president does not like or as an end-run around provisions designed to foster accountability.

    I will not use signing statements to nullify or undermine congressional instructions as enacted into law.”

    or the one we have now who is outpacing Bush, in issuing them.

    As the chief law giver, Obama refused to investigate almost certain past law-beaking of officials of the Bush administration, in his wish to look to the future, as if there were a statue of limitations or impunity for a President and his men. The presumption was, at least, that there would be big change and zero tolerance in the future, by someone, who had railed against the wide discretionary use of Executive power, and Obama as a former liberal Constitutionl law Lecturer could be relied upon to being Constitutionally scrupulous.

    Well, instead, we see as documented by Glenn Greenwald, a continuation of the unitary presidency and its privileges and (abuses?). The latest being Obama ignoring advice, from his own top Department of Justice lawyers that he must seek Congressional approval to wage war in Libya. plus la change, plus la meme chose.

  8. Though excellent advice, as you’ve found, judges don’t want to be the tree (a fact that probably aided to the rise of the mandatory minimums) and, as humans, we generally aren’t up to the task of displaying such consistency. This gives me worry that HOPE will not be as successful as we think, unless you can somehow make it mandatory. And with HOPE being the best shot at reforming the CJS, is it any wonder that people would prefer to keep drug users completely out of this system unless they cause harm?

  9. HOPE will be effective where it’s being used, because it demonstrably works. The problem (as has been noted) is that experts believe first (and foremost) in their expertise.

    We all want the punishment to fit the crime, but whose values determine what punishment fits the crime? The judges I know well (one District Court judge, one Appeals Judge) think they know what the right punishment is, and in some cases I’m sure they’re right. When a child abuser stands in court and says 14 year-old girls are ‘tasty’, the longest sanctioned sentence might be too short. But in other cases, who knows?

    I think things are clearer in the case of the HOPE program: it deals with a limited category of offender, who are all under supervision and judicial authority without a need for trial. Allow judges reasonable discretion for initial sentencing, but for parole/probation offenders, a short sharp reminder of prison life is demonstrably better than randomized enforcement.

    We see the same basic patterns with camera-based traffic enforcement. Most jurisdictions find that red-light running goes way down at camera-equipped intersections. The odd thing here in New Mexico is that the fines for the camera-based systems end up higher than the fines if a patrolman tickets you. It’s the certainty of punishment, not its magnitude that changes behavior.

  10. ANY dog can be leash trained with a choke collar within three walks.

    When he starts to pull, yank back on the leash very hard while saying “NO.”

    The idea that this is inhumane or less humane than letting a dog spend the rest of his leash life choking himself is idiotic.

    Most dogs want to do what you want them to do, they’re just not smart enough to figure it out. And most dog owners aren’t smart enough to figure out how to communicate what they want the dog to do, either.

  11. Maybe I am misunderstanding the context of this post. Is it only about addicts?

    Because this passage- “What looks like discretion to the judge looks like randomness to the offender, who instead of avoiding sanctions by obeying the rules will tend to try to avoid them by figuring out how to game the system. And each sanction becomes both a personal affront – after all, the judge might have acted otherwise, and did act otherwise on other occasions and with other offenders – and a personal defeat.” — leaves out the idea that an offender has any internal idea of right and wrong. And I’m not sure I would agree.

    It seems as likely to me that many people who break (the important) laws are cynics. They think everyone else does it and just doesn’t get caught. And on drug crimes, this may be true to some extent. But the person probably still has some sort of code, and some things they just won’t do.

    So I’m not arguing with the mechanism. It just bothers me that the system would have no aspect of empathy or accountability or any of that.

    But perhaps I misunderstand, because I could see how if we were talking about people in the grip of an addiction, that higher level stuff probably goes out the window, and what I’m talking about would come later on after they got sober.

  12. “And no, this doesn’t mean that I think offenders are like children or animals; it means that I think that there’s a similarity among the responses of sentient organisms to their environments.”

    Hilarious, and well said.

  13. @NGC, Two things: 1) Even severe addicts (unless actively impaired or with permanently cognitive problems) know “right and wrong” and make rational choices based on cost/benefit analysis. The problem is that, in typical probation/parole systems, continuing to use the prohibited drug is a rational decision: the costs of getting caught are frequently nothing, very little, or may come at some point in the distant future or maybe not. People download pirated material for the same reason. 2) Most out-of-control drug users can and do quit without treatment assistance, and they do it frequently under HOPE, but AFAIK the program does offer assistance if they still have trouble.

    I have full confidence HOPE works where it’s correctly implemented, as long as we’re setting aside moral questions about jailing drug users: We could use HOPE on stopping a wide variety of undesired behavior effectively if we’re willing have an awful lot more people spend short stints in jail and be branded with criminal records. The question is do we see drug users as a class of persons especially deserving of this brand of behavior control? It beats longer sentences for probation violation, but I’m not sure it beats decriminalization.

  14. It seems to me that “be a tree” works where the legitimacy of the system is not in question. With dogs that’s not really an issue, but with people it kinda is. When you have scandals like the new york disparity in drug-possession arrests by race, you have to work very hard to convince offenders that the testing regimes and consequences are the same for everyone; otherwise the internal locus of control is a sham, and will be recognized as such.

  15. Gray Woodland says:

    “More seriously, this sounds on the face of it uncomfortably close to the zero-tolerance philosophy…”

    From Mark’s quote: “Obviously, very few rules should be unbreakable no matter what. But many should be unbreakable under normal circumstances.”

  16. This is very bad dog training advice. Being a tree is not being a pack leader. Dogs are pack animals and you as the dog owner must establish yourself as the alpha. Do not be passive. Be active in correcting your dog. Get a choke collar if you must. I can assure you that when a dog pulls on your leash he or she is not chocking himself. If it hurt, the dog would stop doing it. Rather they pull to try and take the lead and establish dominance. You should immediately correct the behavior with a command, or with a tug of the collar if necessary. You can try other things like tapping on its side with your foot.

  17. I think I misunderstood the context of this post. I was mostly talking about people who do some kind of harm to people besides themselves while they are high or drunk.

  18. Barry:

    Gray Woodland says:

    “More seriously, this sounds on the face of it uncomfortably close to the zero-tolerance philosophy…”

    From Mark’s quote: “Obviously, very few rules should be unbreakable no matter what. But many should be unbreakable under normal circumstances.”

    Yes, I read that. But that is a reason for assuming that Mark would not interpret his approach boneheadedly. It isn’t any kind of reason for assuming that his approach’s general tendency, particularly when applied by people who are not Mark, isn’t towards fostering the familiar problems of zero-tolerance.

    I can qualify any policy prescription I like with the caveat that people should not be boneheads about it: this doesn’t immunize it against actually increasing the amount of bonehead behaviour in the system, when implemented. And in this case, I have serious misgivings about Mark’s master metaphor, and the likely results of decision-makers’ buying into it.

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