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The Effect of Self-Relevance on Judgments of Moderate and Severe Disciplinary Encounters

Author(s): Sharon D. Herzberger and Howard Tennen

Source: Journal of Marriage and Family, Vol. 47, No. 2 (May, 1985), pp. 311-318
Published by: National Council on Family RelationsNational Council on Family Relations
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Journal of Marriage and Family.
The Effect of Self-relevance
on Judgments of Moderate and Severe
Trinity College

University of Connecticut Medical School

This study investigated the effects of discipline experienced as a child on the adult's percep-
tions of the severity, deservedness, and appropriateness of disciplinary actions. Clinical
observation suggests that individuals abused as children are more likely to label severe
physical discipline as deserved, appropriate, and perhaps even beneficial. To test this
hypothesis, participants read descriptions of a child's behavior and the parent's response.
Those who had experienced similar parental treatment judged the discipline less harshly
and held the child more accountable than those without similar experiences. The results
generalized to moderate emotional and physical discipline and to severe physical tech-
niques. The implications of these results for the cyclical hypothesis of child abuse are

A person's perception of the severity of a disci- Thomas and associates (1977), for example,
plinary act is influenced by many factors, includ- found that children who had observed a physically
ing his/her cultural and ethnic heritage (Giovan- aggressive police drama were less physiologically
noni and Becerra, 1979), religion (Morris, 1979), aroused by a subsequent fight between pre-
and professional affiliation (Gelles, 1977; Giovan- schoolers than those who had watched an exciting
noni and Becerra, 1979). One factor that has volleyball game. Lefkowitz and colleagues (1972)
received much attention is the individual's suggest that a pattern of viewing violent television
previous exposure to aggression both within and programs among children may contribute to a
external to disciplinary situations. Consistent with propensity for aggression a decade later.
social learning theory's premises on the effects of The effects of modeling may even extend to
models (Bandura, 1973), findings show that peo- those who have been the recipients of aggression.
ple who have observed violence in the past may Clinical reports (Kempe and Kempe, 1978), for
regard it less seriously than those who have not. example, suggest that some children regard their
abusive parent's treatment as rightful and charac-
teristic of other families. While it is unclear
Portionsof this paperwerepresentedat the American whether these children are more likely to engage in
PsychologicalAssociationconventionin Washington, aggression than other abused children, we know
DC, August1982.Thestudywassupportedby a Faculty that children who have been abused tend to be
ResearchGrantfrom TrinityCollege.
more aggressive than children in general (George
Departmentof Psychology,TrinityCollege, 300 Sum- and Main, 1979; Kinard, 1979) and that abused
mit Street,Hartford,CT 06106. children tend to lack empathy (Straker and Jacob-
son, 1981). Furthermore, observation of harsh
*Departmentof Psychology,Universityof Connecticut treatment is believed to be one factor that ac-
MedicalSchool, Farmington,CT 06032. counts for the increased incidence of child abuse


among parents who were abused as children the discipline would benefit the child either behav-
(Straus, 1979). iorally or emotionally.
The present paper reports a study that further A second, more exploratory purpose of the
examines individual differences in perceptions of study was to investigate whether abuse is ap-
moderate and severe discipline by applying experi- proached in a qualitatively distinct way than other
mental methodology to Kempe and Kempe's forms of discipline or whether it is seen as com-
(1978) clinical findings. We examined the extent parable, albeit more extreme. That is, we assessed
to which a history of parental discipline would whether the effects of self-relevance on percep-
render an individual more accepting of similar tions of severity and deservedness extend to
treatment of others and the extent to which such abusive and moderate disciplinary encounters.
treatment would predispose one to label particular Moreover, emotional forms of discipline were
acts of discipline as severe and abusive. presented, in addition to physical methods, to fur-
Why would experiencing discipline, and espe- ther examine the generalizability of the hypothe-
cially abusive discipline, make one more accepting ses.
of similar treatment of others? One explanation is
suggested above; that is, modeled aggression may METHOD
disinhibit the victim, leading him/her to believe
that aggression is acceptable. If one's parent Questionnaire Development
engages in such activities, it would be difficult to A list of discipline techniques was developed
reject the activity without rejecting the parent (cf. from a similar list prepared by Giovannoni and
Kernberg, 1975). Another explanation may stem Becerra (1979). The list was given to pilot subjects
from the "just world hypothesis" (Lerner and (16 males, 19 females) who rated the techniques
Miller, 1978; see also Piaget, 1932), a widespread on a scale from 1 (not at all severe) to 7 (extremely
belief that events occur according to just and severe). Two physically abusive, two emotionally
orderly processes. Just world beliefs allow victims abusive, one physically punishing, and two emo-
to maintain a sense of control and meaning in tionally punishing acts then were selected accord-
their lives and may help them to cope with un- ing to the following criteria: (a) moderate punish-
toward events (Bulman and Wortman, 1977; Ten- ments received mean ratings below the midpoint
nen et al., 1984). Children may develop these of the scale, and abuse received mean ratings
beliefs in response to punishment as a means of above 6.00;' (b) the two techniques within the
comprehending discipline and of avoiding it in the same category (e.g., physical abuse) did not differ
future. Furthermore, discipline is often accom- significantly in severity; but (c) they did differ sig-
panied by verbal communication that substanti- nificantly from techniques that represent a dif-
ates the parent's behavior. Justification for paren- ferent degree of discipline (e.g., physical abuse vs.
tal treatment makes it appear more reasonable physical punishment). Spanking was the only
and complements the child's belief in a just world. physical punishment chosen, since no other com-
This system of belief then may carry over into mon physical technique was regarded moderately.
adulthood and result in less sympathy for other Thus, spanking was used twice in the question-
victims. naire. The discipline techniques and their ratings
The present study tested hypotheses consistent are presented in Table 1.
with the above rationale. If it is true that those Pilot subjects also rated a list of misbehaviors
who experienced similar treatment are more ac- performed by the child on a scale from 1 (not at
cepting of the discipline technique, we would ex- all deserving of punishment) to 7 (extremely de-
pect them to judge the technique less severely than serving). Eight misbehaviors were chosen that met
other people. We also would expect people who the following criteria: (a) they were moderately
have experienced similar discipline to view the provocative (deserving of punishment, but not
technique as more deserved and appropriate. In evoking extreme reactions); (b) they did not differ
the following study young adults were asked to significantly from one another in degree of
read descriptions of disciplinary encounters and deservedness of punishment; and (c) there were no
to judge the severity and appropriateness of the significant differences in deservedness ratings by
parent's behavior. In addition, participants were males and females. The chosen misbehaviors are
asked to judge the emotional impact of the dis- listed in Table 2.
ciplinary encounter and its effect upon the child's The misbehaviors were each paired with a dis-
future behavior. If people who have experienced a cipline technique in two random sets of pairings
particular form of discipline regard it as and developed into a short vignette with names
"rightful," we might expect them to predict that for the characters and a few contextual details.
For example:


Technique Mean SD
Physical-moderate:Parent spanks child with hand on rear. 3.19a 1.31
Parenthits child with leatherstrapon bareskin.
Physical-severe: 6.40bc 0.86
Parentbangschild againstwall severaltimes. 6.65b 0.63
Emotional-moderate: Parentforces child to acknowledgewrongdoingat dinnertable. 3.46a 1.74
Parentdoesn't allow child to play with friendsfor 3 days. 3.05a 1.49
Emotional-severe:Parentscreamsfor 20 minutes,callingchild "miserablebastard"
and also "worthlesspiece of crap." 6.24c 0.93
Parentcompareschild with youngersibling,implyingthat the
child is not reallyhis/her own and is unwanted. 6.16c 0.96
Note: Techniquesthat do not sharesuperscriptsdiffer from one anotherat p < .05 level of significance.

Krisis the daughterof Mr. and Mrs. Jones. One old child. Pleaseread each descriptioncarefully
day when Kris was drawingat her desk, she and answer the questions accompanyingthe
decidedto draw a pictureon the bedroomwall description.We are interestedin obtainingyour
withcrayons.WhenMr. Jonessawwhatshe had impressionsof the incident-not the impressions
done, he banged her against the wall several you thinkyou should have. So, pleasebe honest
times. [Physicalabuse] andopenaboutyouropinions.Do not writeyour
Four of the vignettes (one of each type) involved a nameanywhereon this booklet.
daughter, and four involved a son, with gender Participants then were asked to read the vignettes
counterbalanced across questionnaires. The disci- carefully and to make six judgments about each.
plinary agent (mother versus father) varied across The six judgments were: (a) severity of the
participants but remained the same within a given parent's response (regardless of the child's pro-
participant's questionnaire. The vignettes were vocation), from 1 (not at all severe) to 7 (extreme-
collated in two random orders. ly severe); (b) appropriateness of the parent's be-
havior, from 1 (not at all appropriate) to 7
Experimental Session
(perfectly appropriate); (c) likelihood that the
Subjects. College students (N = 139) from a parent's behavior would increase or decrease the
small private college participated in the study to child's tendency to misbehave in the future, from
fulfill a requirement as part of their introductory -4 (very likely to decrease future misbehavior) to
psychology course. +4 (very likely to increase future misbehavior);
Procedure. Participation took place in groups (d) likelihood that the parent's behavior would
(30-50 subjects in each) and under conditions of produce a positive or negative result on the child's
anonymity. Participants were handed the ques- emotional development, from -4 (very likely to
tionnaire that contained the eight vignettes and produce a negative effect on emotional develop-
given the following written instructions: ment) to + 4 (very likely to produce a positive ef-
On the followingpages we describedisciplinary fect on emotional development); (e) a dichoto-
interactionsbetweenparent and child. The in- mous choice as to whether the respondent would
teractions have been taken from actual case regard the parental behavior as "child abuse";
studies.The namesof the participants,however, and (f) degree to which the parent's action was
havebeenalteredand otheridentifyinginforma- seen as the child's responsibility, as the parent's
tion has beendeletedto protectthe anonymityof responsibility (both ratings were expressed in per-
the individualsinvolved. Each interactiontook
centage form and were required to sum to 100%07).
place betweena parentand his or her 4-7 year-


Deservedness Mean SD
Refusedto clean up room after beingaskedseveraltimes. 3.68 1.30
Brokepiece of chinaby balancingit on head;droppedto floor. 3.63 1.28
Was caughtsmoking. 3.77 1.26
Drewa pictureon bedroomwall with crayons. 3.83 1.29
Constantlyteasingthe familycat; one day yankedcat's tail. 3.60 1.75
Spilledgrapejuice on the carpetafter havingbeen told neverto take food into the livingroom. 3.77 1.52
Sneakedinto neighbor'syardand stole some berries. 3.94 1.81
Hit baseballinto neighbor'swindowafter beingtold not to play exceptin park. 4.00 1.28
Note: Therewereno significant(p < .05) differencesamongthe means.



Severity Appropriateness Misbehavior Emotional

Not Not Not Not
IVignette Similar Similar Similar Similar Similar Similar Similar Similar S
Emotional- 3.48 3.05* 3.78 4.85**** -1.27 -1.85** -.29 .52**
moderate, son
0 (77,62)a
Emotional- 4.09 3.06**** 3.24 4.83**** -1.32 -1.83* -.90 .76****
z moderate,
daughter (84,54)
o0 Emotional- 6.10 6.00 1.36 1.86 .78 1.18 -3.24 -3.21
severe, son
Emotional- 6.24 5.87 1.32 1.60 .74 1.00 -3.41 -3.07
severe, daughter
Il- (123,15)
0 3.91 3.23*** 3.11 4.46**** -.48 -1.31**
Physical- -.86 -.16**
son (35,104)
CJ Physical- 3.80 3.20*** 3.25 4.24*** -.68 -1.54*** -.84 .11****
m daughter (44,92)
Physical- 6.56 5.86** 1.44 2.36** -.53 -1.14 -3.07 -1.64****
severe, son
It (124,14)
Physical- 6.71 5.87*** 1.24 2.40*** -.84 -.67 -3.36 -2.93 9
aThe numbers in parentheses represent the number of participants who did not receive similar treatment and th
respectively, as a child.
*p < .10.
**p < .05.
***p < .01.
****p < .001.
When the participant completed the judgments tive ratings for the effect of discipline on future
for the eight vignettes, she/he was asked to reread misbehavior indicate that moderate emotional
each vignette and note whether the parental dis- and physical discipline and severe physical dis-
ciplinary act was similar or not similar (if not cipline were predicted to reduce misbehavior.
precisely the same) to parental treatment received Emotionally severe discipline was predicted by
by the participant.2 Respondents were then de- both groups to enhance the likelihood of misbe-
briefed. havior. In general, both groups also believed that
all types of discipline would affect adversely the
RESULTS child's emotional development; only participants
On each vignette t tests were performed com- who had experienced moderate emotional or
paring the judgments of those who remembered physical punishment believed it would produce a
having experienced similar parental treatment positive effect. Finally, in response to almost all
with those of respondents who did not. The vignettes, participants in both groups held the
number of participants in each group, as well as parent more than the child responsible for the dis-
the mean rating on each dependent variable and cipline. In summary, individuals who recalled
the results of associated t tests, are shown in Table having experienced the discipline in question
3. Participants who had experienced moderate judged it in a qualitatively similar way to other in-
emotional, moderate physical, and/or severe dividuals. Thus, although self-relevance provokes
physical discipline similar to the child in the less severe judgments, it does not ensure that a
vignette judged the techniques less harshly than particular discipline will be seen as innocuous.
did participants who had not experienced similar
discipline. Participants with similar treatment
perceived the treatment to be less severe and were Consistent with previous clinical reports
less likely to label it "abusive." They also deemed (Kempe and Kempe, 1978), participants who
the treatment more appropriate and attributed remembered experiencing a particular disciplinary
more responsibility to the child for the parent's method viewed the method less harshly than those
discipline. Participants with similar treatment also who did not remember experiencing it. In addi-
were more likely to predict that the discipline tion to perceiving the disciplinary interactions to
would result in decreased misbehavior and were be less severe and more appropriate, participants
less likely to predict that the discipline would with similar backgrounds believed that the
result in emotional harm. Of the 36 comparisons, punishment would be less likely to harm the
26 were significant at the p _< .05 level. Of the 10 child's emotional development and more likely to
nonsignificant comparisons, 9 pairs of means dif- decrease the incidence of future misbehavior.
fered in the predicted directions, thus offering These results held for moderate spanking, as well
further support for the hypotheses.3 as more severe physical discipline, and across both
While participants who had experienced emo- emotional and physical forms of punishment.
tionally severe discipline were consistently more Thus, self-relevance of the discipline appears to
lenient than others in their judgments of similar operate comparably in judgments of a wide varie-
discipline, none of the 12 judgments of emo- ty of discipline techniques.
tionally severe disciplinary episodes showed sig- Although the results support the hypotheses
nificant differences between groups (only one and are consistent with the explicated rationale,
comparison approached significance, p < .10). one might ask why the opposite effect does not
The findings described above compare judg- occur-why victims do not develop empathy for
ments of individuals with and without similar those sharing a similar plight? Feshbach and Fesh-
treatment and, as noted, consistent differences bach (1969) suggest that child abuse may stem
emerged. In addition, one should examine the from a lack of empathy on the part of the parent.
relative values of the judgments for the sample as Since abusive parents may be less empathic than
a whole. This examination reveals that, while other parents (Spinetta and Rigler, 1972), they
strong quantitative differences indeed exist, the may be less responsive to others' pain and
judgments did not vary qualitatively across distress. One might speculate that experiences that
groups. For example, a majority of the individu- increase parents' ability to empathize would
als in similar and nonsimilar treatment groups decrease the likelihood of inflicting pain in the
regarded the emotionally and physically severe future. This logic might suggest a decline, rather
punishments as abusive and the emotionally and than an increase, in the use of physical discipline
physically moderate punishments as not abusive. among those who were severely punished.
Furthermore, judgments of the effects of disci- Research on the development of empathy, how-
pline were similar across groups. The mean nega- ever, suggests that empathy may not ensue merely


from exposure to a particular treatment. Hoff- perceptions of punishment. As research on the
man (1970) notes that "inductive" discipline best relationship between attitudes and behavior has
encourages the development of internalized moral often shown (Schuman and Johnson, 1976),
standards and empathy. Induction includes asking thought and action may be quite independent.
the child to explain his/her actions and making Consequently, future research should investigate
the child recognize the consequences of the action whether (and under Whatcircumstances) attitudes
for others. On the other hand, "sensitization" about various forms of discipline affect the likeli-
techniques, which include yelling and corporal hood of engaging in disciplinary actions that may
punishment, encourage the child to' think of the be termed abusive.
consequences of misbehavior to himself/herself. Second, the present sample did not comprise
Therefore, parents who rely primarily upon sen- parents. To test the generalizability of the results,
sitization techniques not only provide a model of we asked a pilot sample of parents to complete the
aggression but fail to encourage the child to con- same questionnaires. The sample was too small
sider the implications of aggression from another (N = 16) to generate many significant results, but
viewpoint. the judgments were similar to those in the non-
Several circumstances, however, may encour- parent sample. Generally, parents who had ex-
age the victim of harsh treatment to reject similar perienced similar discipline as a child regarded the
treatment of others. The first circumstance is sug- discipline as less severe, more appropriate, and
gested in the above paragraph; when the child is less harmful than did other parents. Parents who
exposed to induction, as well as sensitization, re- had experienced emotional abuse, however, were
jection of another's harsh treatment is possible. more rejecting of similar treatment of another
Second, Kelley (1967) noted that unique, unex- child. Thus, with the exception of judgments of
pected behavior is viewed as more undesirable emotional abuse, the results generalized across
than common behavior. Therefore, opportunities samples. Views about discipline may differ when
to notice that the severity of discipline does not one considers the treatment of an unknown child
correspond with the degree of misbehavior or that versus one's own, but the results of this experi-
the discipline technique is uncommon may lead to mental analogue are consistent with reports using
rejection of the technique. Third, to the extent clinical samples (e.g., Silver et al., 1969).
that the parent recants his/her actions, the child Child abuse generally has been studied in isola-
may also learn that the discipline is inappropriate. tion from other discipline techniques and has been
Fourth, children who have undergone treatment considered implicitly and explicitly qualitatively
for child abuse, including removal from the distinct (see Zigler, 1979). Similarities in the ef-
home, may be more empathic due to an awareness fects of self-relevance on judgments across diverse
of how society in general views abuse (cf. Herz- types of discipline, however, suggest the impor-
berger et al., 1981). These conditions, among tance of comparing physical abuse with other
others, should be examined for the degree to techniques. Although similarity in judgment does
which they interfere with the predicted percep- not necessarily imply a standard process of for-
tions of harsh discipline. mulating the judgments, the degree of consistency
The present results are consistent with evidence shown in the present study is striking. To the ex-
for a cyclical pattern of child abuse (Straus, 1979), tent that comparable processes account for the
meaning that abuse is passed from one generation judgments about physical abuse and other forms
to the next. Although behavioral modeling (Parke of discipline, abuse should be viewed more as part
and Collmer, 1975) and emotional deprivation of a disciplinary continuum and less as a distinc-
(Martin and Rodeheffer, 1976; Steele and tive activity. The results suggest, however, that
Pollock, 1968) have been suggested as mecha- emotional abuse should be considered separately
nisms for the cross-generational transmission of and its unique consequences examined.
abuse, it is quite possible that a perspective from One additional finding should be mentioned. A
which to view disciplinary styles is passed from pervasive perception among participants was that
parent to child (cf. Bandura, 1973; Herzberger, emotional development would be affected ad-
1983). The transmission of perspective may render versely by even moderate discipline. This result is
more likely the possibility of the parent and child interesting in light of Coopersmith's (1967) and
adopting similar discipline techniques. Baumrind's (1967) reports that strict discipline,
Caution must be exercised, however, about the coupled with clear rules, warmth, and attention,
present results' support for the cyclical hypothe- produce emotionally healthy children. In con-
sis. First, the study did not test directly the cyclical trast, in homes where discipline is too lax or too
hypothesis but merely demonstrated a relation- harshly applied, children often have behavioral
ship between parental treatment and current and emotional difficulties. Therefore, it is not dis-


cipline per se that adversely affects the child, but Baumrind, D.
its form. The current results suggest, however, 1967 "Child care practices anteceding three patterns
that disciplinary agents may not recognize that of preschool behavior." Genetic Psychology
they are helping the child when they administer Monographs 75:43-88.
Bulman, R. J. and Wortman, C. B.
punishment. Future research should explore the 1977 "Attributions of blame and coping in the 'real
implications of these results for the quality of world': severe accident victims react to their
parent-child interactions and the effectiveness of lot." Journal of Personality and Social Psy-
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Coopersmith, S.
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Feshbach, N. and Feshbach, S.
FOOTNOTES 1969 "The relationship between empathy and ag-
1. Discipline techniques labeled "abuse" for this study gression in two age groups." Developmental
also were regarded as severe by the professionals Psychology 1:102-107.
sampled by Giovannoni and Becerra (1979). Spank- Gelles, R. J.
ing was not regarded as severe. 1977 "Problems defining and labeling child abuse."
Paper presented to the Study Group on Prob-
2. Participants were asked to note similarity to own lems in the Prediction of Child Abuse and
treatment after the other judgments were made in Neglect, Wilmington, DE (June).
order not to make self-relevance salient in the judg- George, C. and Main, M.
ment process. This procedure was believed to corre- 1979 "Social interactions of young abused children:
spond to naturalistic judgment situations in which approach, avoidance, and aggression." Child
self-relevance may be a factor that affects judg- Development 50:306-318.
ments, but in which judges are not compelled to con- Giovannoni, J. M. and Becerra, R. M.
sider its relevance. 1979 Defining Child Abuse. New York:Free Press.
The wording of the request-to note whether the Herzberger, S. D.
participant had experienced similar treatment-was 1983 "Social cognition and the transmission of
chosen deliberately. Given that participants were abuse." Pp. 317-329 in D. Finkelhor,
asked to recall parental behavior that occurred many R. Gelles, E. Hotaling and M. Straus (Eds.),
years ago, they may have forgotten specific details; The Dark Side of Families: Current Family
Violence Research. Beverly Hills, CA:Sage.
yet, the overall type of discipline that the parents
used should be recalled. Although some error in Herzberger, S. D., Potts, D. A. and Dillon, M.
recall may have occurred, it was not expected to af- 1981 "Abusive and nonabusive parental treatment
fect the groups differentially. Furthermore, one's from the child's perspective." Journal of Con-
recollections of disciplinary interactions are interest- sulting and Clinical Psychology 49:81-90.
ing in themselves and, even if faulty, are likely to af- Hoffman, M. L.
fect current attitudes and behavior. Therefore, recol- 1970 "Moral development." In P. H. Mussen
lection of parental discipline style was deemed an ap- (Ed.), Carmichael's Manual of Child Psychol-
propriate measure. ogy. New York:John Wiley & Sons.
Kelley, H. H.
3. The t-test comparisons were necessary-as opposed 1967 "Attribution theory in social psychology." In
to an overall analysis of variance-because group D. Levine (Ed.), Nebraska Symposium on
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cantly at thep < .05 level, 9 at thep < .01 level, 4 at 1979 "The psychological consequences of abuse for
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