When trying to condition a mode of behavior there are two primary methods one can employ. Either one can provide a stimulus that strengthens and encourages the behavior, or, in stark contrast, one can punish deviant behavior which weakens attitudes of non compliance. Punishment is authoritative imposition of something undesirable or unpleasant, or the removal of something desirable or pleasant in response to behavior deemed unacceptable.
- If a dog “sits” on command and this behavior is followed by the reward of a treat, then the treat serves to positively reinforce the behavior of “sitting.”
- A teenager comes home after curfew and the parents take away a privilege, such as cell phone usage. The removal of the phone motivates the child to return home earlier.
Simply put, reinforcers serve to increase behaviors whereas punishments serve to decrease behaviors; thus, positive reinforcers are stimuli that the subject will work to attain, and negative reinforcers are stimuli that the subject will work to avoid or to end.
Often both procedures are available to correct behavior and authorities, parents and educators have to select between the two. Generally positive reinforcement is a healthier approach than its counterpart negative punishment. Yet even though both may achieve the same goal promising that the correct behavior is attained, there are risks in both of these methodologies. Negativity, often the more effective in the short term suffers from the decrease of pleasure and creates a strained environment. Positive reinforcement may not always be successful in engendering the results wanted, the reward may not be sufficiently appealing. A balance needs to be struck by any authority to both stimulate and penalize in order to ensure correct conduct and performance.
Six tribes ascended to the summit of Mount Gerizim and six to the top of Mount Eival; the Priests, Levites and Holy Ark stood below in the middle. The Levites turned their faces towards Mount Gerizim and began with the blessing: “Blessed be the man who does not make a graven or molten image…,” and all the tribes answered “Amen!” Then they turned their faces towards Mount Eival and began with the curse, saying: “Cursed be the man who makes any graven or molten image…,” and they all responded “Amen!” The Levites then turned their faces once again towards Mount Gerizim… and then towards Mount Eival… and thus they proclaimed all eleven statements. (Sotah 32a)
The Torah has done both, it has provided Blessings for compliance and Curses for waywardness. However since the positive is definitely to be favored over the negative we are led to the following question. Granted that the Torah wanted to avoid being repetitious and document only one version of the events, why does it choose to include only the Curses and not the Blessing? Hashem would rather shower us with goodness and prosperity than the reverse, shouldn’t the Torah be more positive and record just the Blessings instead of solely mentioning the Curses?
When a child runs into the road to fetch a ball, the two aforementioned approaches are available for the parent or caregiver. Positive reinforcement: by promising the child a reward if in future she resists dashing into the street. Or, punishing the infringement to correct her behavior and intimidate further infractions. A caring parent would be seem to act in harsh manner and punish the child; running into the street carries the danger of her darting in the path of an oncoming vehicle. This is a definite risk of lethal proportions and one cannot afford to jeopardize the health of the youngster out of fear that she may be psychologically harmed. Punishment too has its role to play in child-rearing.
This explains why the Torah records the Curses over the Blessing. Sure the parent would rather incentivize the child for not running then punish her for dashing out into the street, and a good parent will reward her future obedience, but no-one can play chance with this peril. The same is true for these eleven curses which were central to the morality of the Nation. Hashem would rather reward conformity than punish non-compliance, but the effect of any rebelliousness would be devastating, and the Torah does not want to entertain hazard. Therefore, when faced with the choice of listing the Blessing or Curses and the desire to ensure acquiescence, the Torah resorts to shuddering curses to be certain the people fell into line.