Punishment, Correction and Conditioning in the Shaping of Human Tools

Soulhuntrearticle6 Comments


Punishment, Correction and Conditioning in the Shaping of Human Tools


I am a fairly active participant in the discussion of the methods, philosophies and issues that surround and permeate the BDSM community in a number of mediums. Several topics come up often and seem to be in the process of dividing the BDSM community in a mild way; the concept of training is one of them and closely related to that is the concept of punishment.

As part of my personal work as well as my association with the training facility known as The Estate I have developed a number of opinions and methodologies to deal with training and correction. After discussing these thoughts in the various forums in shortened form I finally decided to place my thoughts in a longer form. This is not intended to be a how-to manual for punishment; rather I simply wish to discuss some of the issues and concepts surrounding the topic.

It is important for you to be aware that I have no special training myself in any formal sense for these topics. I hold no doctorate degree in psychology or neurobiology; I am not a therapist nor am I an education professional. What I present here is the result of my research and my experience as a trainer and a teacher over the years.

Additionally I want to apologize in advance if this reads rather dryly. I felt it was important for me to be clear and concise in discussing my ideas and this leads to a rather technical sounding presentation.

What is he talking about?

For the purposes of this document I would like to take a moment and define the core terms I will use. These represent the dictionary definitions of several sources as well as some clarification for the specific context of training.

Punishment (noun): A penalty or consequence imposed as a result of an action or failure to act. The opposite of a reward.

In its simplest form punishment can be thought of as the opposite of a reward. It is a form of negative reinforcement that is imposed either naturally by a situation or deliberately by someone who wishes to express disapproval.

In the context of training it often has as its goal the alteration of the perceptions and responses of its target to make substantive changes in their thoughts or actions in the future. This brings us to our next term… correction.

Correction (noun): Punishment intended to improve or rehabilitate.

As we can see then correction is punishment with a specific goal.

Response (noun): The reaction of an individual to a given situation or stimulus. This reaction can be internal as a series of thoughts or emotions or it can be physical in the form of a specific action. This response mayor may not be automatic.

Response is a generic term for my discussion because I will often not make a distinction between the alterations of someone’s thoughts or someone’s actions simply because often the principals apply equally well to both.

Conditioning (noun): The process by which a subject comes to associate a desired response with a specific stimulus.

In other words, conditioning is another word for some types of training… most applicable to those areas of training that can be reduced to a simple set of stimuli.

Reflex (adjective): An automatic or involuntary response to a stimulus.

It is important to understand the distinction between a reflexive response and a simple response. A reflexive response does not go through the conscious decision making process and may be limited in the total amount of complexity it can correctly evaluate.

Training (verb): To accustom or condition to a mode of behavior or performance.

You can see now how the terms begin to build on each other. It would be accurate to say that training is the education of a submissive in the desired responses and behaviors. This education may include conditioning and punishment.

Discipline (noun): Training expected to produce a specific pattern of behavior, especially training aimed at moral or mental improvement. Alternately discipline is used to refer to the result of such training.

Contrast this with conditioning which concerns itself primarily with a clearer response/stimulus pattern or reflex. Discipline would be in an area such as self control or keeping silent whereas conditioning generally has more to do with physical issues such as posture.

The debate in the community

Punishment is a controversial topic within the BDSM community as is its closely related cousins of service and training. The core debate seems to revolve around two separate lines of thought that I will summarize below along with my responses.

The ‘perfect obedience’ proposal is that the submissive in a relationship naturally has as their goal obedience to their dominants wants and desires. Thus, they will always endeavor to obey and if at any time they fail in that task it is an innocent mistake or momentary weakness. Such a submissive does not, they may claim, need to be “treated like a child” to achieve the goals of the dominant.

It follows then in this line of thought that all that is required to make a correction would be for the submissive to be made aware of where/how they have failed and they will then correct themselves in the future. A secondary argument is made that the knowledge of their failure will result in self punishment because they will be distraught at the idea of having failed their dominant.

For those cases where the dominant has as a requirement a set of responses that are either already present in the submissive or easily modified through conscious thought this dynamic will suffice; for those responses a dominant may demand that are reflexive there is reason to believe this will be insufficient.

While the self punishment of the submissive is a real phenomena and the submissive in question will no doubt feel significant anguish in their failure this is not always a useful means of correcting the response. It is fairly common for humans to misinterpret the cause of their own failure or the exact nature of that failure. Any change in the responses of the submissive resulting from a mistaken or misplaced self punishment would then not be in line with the desired response.

The issue of maturity that is mentioned is a red herring assuming that punishment and correction are actions society reserves only for children or the immature and this is clearly false.

“My dominant should want me as I am and not change me!” is another common refrain that shows up in several forms. It is clear that in the majority of relationships there is no training desired or required. The reasons for this may simply be that the dominant has no specific responses in mind or that they are in line with the responses already present in the submissive.

In either case this is a perfectly acceptable relationship dynamic. It does not however negate that there are other possible valid relationship dynamics that may require the substantial alteration of the responses of the submissive.

One common rebuttal when this is pointed out is to question why the dominant would have entered a relationship with a submissive that required substantial alteration. The answer is simple and clear; this submissive offered value that exceeded the cost of her training (not speaking specifically monetarily, though that may be one situation).

How people respond and act

While the internals of the human mind are still beyond our complete understanding several factors have combined to allow us to model its behavior with some accuracy. This model is the synthesis of what has been learned from studying the physical structure of the brain and those who are trying to duplicate its functions for use in robotic systems that need to learn and adapt. Below is the model of human responses I use in my training programs, for simple reference I tend to think of this as the “Black-Box” model.

In the Black-Box model of response behavior I consider that humans tend to encode repetitive tasks or conclusions into their ‘hardware’ and that from the point of view of the conscious mind the inner workings of these become opaque or unknown. In engineering such a system is known as a “Black Box” indicating that its functions are unknown.

The human brain appears to be a large network of neurons that are free to form connections to each other arbitrarily in three dimensions. There is some evidence that as we learn these connections between the cells of our brain become physically thicker and stronger in some directions and not so in others, forming a map of our knowledge.

When faced with a situation that requires a response the human mind seems to have two fundamentally different ways to choose that response:

  • If a pre-existing reflex exists that can be used to handle the situation automatically then the mind will simply execute that response. Often this is done without interrupting the conscious mind or decision making abilities.
  • Any situation or stimulus that doesn’t have a reflex or is too complex to be handled by a reflex is processed by the conscious mind. While the conscious mind has an incredible ability to make decisions about handling novel or unknown situations it is slow compared to reflexes and there is a limit to how much it can handle.

The real power of the mind seems to lie in the ability for the conscious mind to eventually shape reflexes by creating and strengthening connections in the brain.. This process allows us to function more efficiently over time and represents an important aspect of learning.

Think of it this way – the more you do something the more engrained those pathways in your mind become. The more deeply those pathways are engrained the less you have to “think” about using them.

An example is the act of catching a ball:

When you first tried it you were slow and clumsy. You got hit with it or dropped the ball often. Your brain had to attempt to solve complex spatial relations calculations in real time and simultaneously control your arm and body to make the catch. Your conscious mind was not up to the task because it is slow, very slow considering the speeds of the world we live in.

Over time you got better at it. The reason for this is simple, more and more of the processing was being encoded into your brains physical structure by the process of learning. As those items were thus encoded they became a subroutine or reflex that your conscious mind could call upon. These reflexes run much, much faster than your conscious mind. The more that gets encoded the more your brain has left to handle the rest of the problem.

In the end, the entire process of catching a ball became automated. Once that happens you can catch balls all day while using your conscious mind to do a multitude of other tasks like listening to music or holding a conversation – or making decisions about where to throw the ball once you catch it to win a baseball game. It goes further; once you have that reflex then it becomes generalized. Not only can you catch a baseball but your body will quickly react to catch a wide range of “semi ball like objects”.

In this way we become more efficient at complex tasks over time. Driving is another example many of us can relate too. It seemed complex and overwhelming in the beginning but later on it is easy. When the conditions on the road become significantly different than what we are used to, like when it is snowing or raining, the reflexes gradually lose their ability to help us and driving becomes a difficult task again.

It is easy to see how these concepts apply to reflexes that involve physical actions, but is the same true for more complex decisions? It seems that it is though the experimental verification is somewhat lacking.

In my experience, complex decisions and moral/ethical concepts go through a similar process of imprinting or learning. I know that for myself when I was younger I spent quite a lot of time weighing the aspects of my actions in the context of my developing morals and ethics. Over time I spend much less time on such things – those responses I would find morally objectionable simply do not occur to me on the conscious level as possibilities for action.

For these complex types of decisions and situations then discipline is the more applicable strategy. Whether internally or externally imposed discipline can be used to imprint complex responses into the brain. These responses are slower than reflexes and more subject to conscious modification or control but significantly more flexible and still provide an efficiency increase over completely conscious processing.

An example is chess:

When learning to play chess one finds quickly at the lower skill levels that it is a bad idea to leave your King exposed to the front. As the number of games lost to this situation mounts many players develop a distinct reluctance to make any move that will expose their King to the front because of this. We may say that this player is ‘disciplined’ in that they do not make casual mistakes leaving their King open when tired or distracted.

The interesting part of this is that there are many situations where it is perfectly safe and advantageous to make such a move. As ones skill increases they may know this intellectually but they often will retain a sense of unease at the prospect. This unease is not beyond conscious control the way a reflex generally is… but the power of the imprint remains noticeable.

There are many possible situations where this type of discipline can be useful in training the submissive to serve optimally. It can often be used to instill instincts and tendencies that can improve performance and attitude. Discipline can be instilled to combat a natural tendency to laziness or to overcome an innate shyness for example. Most importantly discipline can be used to help the submissive control inappropriate emotional responses.

Just like conditioned reflexes, discipline helps the mind create automatic or semi-automatic responses that can leave the conscious mind clear to make decisions. Self discipline to control panic can go a long way to helping someone respond appropriately in a dangerous situation.

The use of punishment and reward

Punishment is simply the negative consequence of a response. In that sense it does not necessarily have a purpose or goal; however the most common use of punishment in BDSM is as a component of the training or disciplining of the submissive.

In BDSM the goal of training is to alter the responses of the submissive so that they more closely match the desires of the dominant. The range of areas where such responses might be controlled is limited only by the scope of the relationship itself but can include everything from the smallest physical act to the overall philosophical view the submissive applies to moral decisions.

The applicability of punishment in training, and the type of punishment you use will depend largely on whether the change falls into the broad categories of conditioning or discipline.

It is my experience that in cases of disciplinary problems it is useful for the punishment to emphasize the mental/emotional/moral aspects of the transgression. In this circumstance the punishment should also be accompanied by an expression of disapproval or reprimand. A physical component to this punishment may well be useful to bring home the reprimand or to focus the submissive on the issue at hand but the physical alone will rarely bring about the change you desire.

The flip side of the coin would be a failure on the part of the submissive to exhibit the desired conditioned response. As conditioned responses generally bypass the conscious mind and are rarely affected by things like motivation, dedication or discipline it is not often useful to emphasize reprimand or judgment in association with this type of failure.

Reward is the opposite of punishment and may be used in conjunction with it. A reward is a positive consequence that is earned by the submissive when the proper response is manifested. Reward is often particularly effective at the bonding of responses to stimulus when there was no previous connection at all to that stimulus.

There are primarily two types of situations where reward will be effective:

  • When it is more practical to introduce the response first and then attach the stimulus to it afterward.
  • When the response is one that is primarily conscious in nature.

Looking at these we can see how reward applies to the classic example of Pavlov’s dog experiments. It would have been completely inefficient to ring the bell and then punish the dogs each time they did not salivate. The number of ‘misses’ would have been high enough to result in the association of the bell with punishment.

Similarly it is often more efficient to create rewards for the conscious or semi-conscious responses associated with disciplinary issues. The situations that require disciplinary responses are often outside those that could be completely predicted at the time of training; this is what differentiates them from reflexes. Often the conscious mind will go the ‘extra mile’ to seek maximum reward but may well accept a minimum response if that will suffice to avoid punishment.

An example of reward:

The classic reward example in BDSM is orgasm triggering. If we consistently associate a stimulus (typically a spoken word) with a reward (orgasm) then over time it is easy to create an orgasm as a response to that trigger. It is extremely difficult to create this type of positive response in any other manner.

An example of punishment:

As a martial arts instructor one of the things I must teach is the proper method of positioning ones body to be able to defend against an incoming blow. Of this, one of the hardest things to instill in adults and children alike is that they must keep their hands up to be effective with our style. If they drop their hands then they will be vulnerable and they will be hit in the face.

I can explain this to them. I can show this to them. I can praise them for keeping their hands up (reward)

After all that, a portion of those people will still drop their hands during a sparring session because they feel faster or more nimble in that position.

Are these adults immature? No. Are they stupid? No. Do they lack respect for me as their teacher? No. Do they lack respect for our Sensei? No. Do they lack dedication? No.

What is the cause of the problem then? Simple; they are dealing with a complex and often unfamiliar situation that is overwhelming their conscious minds ability to process. The result of this is that their mind is “farming out” responsibility for some of their responses to deeper reflexes or instincts to free up conscious attention to handle the problems of defense and response. In other words, they have had to allow some things to go on “auto pilot”.

Another possibility is also seen. They already have reflexes or neural pathways that encode a different response to this problem. Maybe it is a response ingrained by a previous Sensei or style. In this case, under the stress and complexities of combat they may simply not have the available concentration to over-ride the reflex and do everything else needed of them.

In my experience, a large portion of these students will not alter that response until they get hit in the face a few times (punishment) by their opponent. This punishment drastically raises the priority of altering that response or forming a new one and they will assign much more conscious brain power to making that change.

Rewarding them for keeping their hands up does not fix this problem nearly as efficiently as the negative re-enforcement of being hit in the face for keeping their hands down.

The importance of consistency

The value of consistency in punishment is one that comes up fairly often in its own right. So I think it deserves a small section all its own.

Generally speaking consistency in the application of punishment is crucial in the creation or maintenance of a conditioned response. By its nature conditioning is based on consistent application of reward or punishment. Once the response is conditioned it is possible to become more inconsistent without significantly degrading the response.

For disciplinary situations complete consistency may be less crucial. In circumstances where a pattern of behavior is being changed though disciplinary methods sometimes it is useful to forego punishment or reprimand. This is often considered mercy or leniency and is in itself a powerful form of manipulation.

In all cases it is important that the submissive realize that a failure to apply punishment was a decision on the part of the dominant, not that the dominant either didn’t notice or didn’t care about the infraction.

An experiment

One of the commands in my training program is “drop”. When the command to “drop” is heard the submissive should instantly assume a kneeling position. This is not something they should think about or question, it is intended as an instant and unconditional response.

Obviously, only try this experiment at your own risk!

You could try to instill this response into your submissive with a reward system. Say by giving them praise or a kiss when she drops at your command. Remember though, it must be an instant reaction to count.

Once you think they have it, begin adding distractions to the situation. Slip the command into a conversation or while you are giving other commands. Try it while she is holding a cup of water.

In the vast majority of cases you will notice that the response time becomes much longer as distractions are given. For responses of this level of complexity it seems that the reward is not sufficiently connected to the action to form a strong bond; unlike the above example of an orgasm which is a simple instantaneous act.

Now try it with a punishment trigger. Take some time to issue the command to “drop” when you are close to your submissive. When you issue the command if there is any hesitation at all then apply the punishment. I find that a riding crop is a fine tool for this purpose.

In a short time you will probably see that the negative reinforcement has had a much stronger associative effect than the reward did. It is not always true but my experience has shown it often is.


My goal with this article is to provide some information and a potentially useful framework to those within the community who feel that training, conditioning and punishment may be useful in their relationship. Hopefully I have done that.

These methods have been used in one form or another for as long as humans have had social interactions and they clearly have a powerful potential to shape the actions of the submissive that is being trained.

I feel also that they have an important role in combating some of the current trends in BDSM. I am speaking specifically about the trend to demand less and less of those who chose to serve. Generally the justification for the lowering of those standards and demands is that it is not possible to act to a high standard all the time, that it is too difficult or something that is possible only in fictional novels.

I will submit for your consideration that high standards of behavior are extremely difficult when training and discipline are removed. That it is the removal of conditioning and training in an attempt to civilize BDSM that is resulting in the conclusion that they are unattainable.

For my house I know that it would simply not be possible to display what I consider correct responses if one had only their conscious mind to rely on. There are details of body positioning, tone of voice and a thousand other details that need to be constantly adhered to; they would take up so much time consciously obeying that there would be no capacity left to do anything useful!

As training and discipline make more and more of those responses and patterns automatic, the amount of conscious effort needed to comply drops until eventually what was a seemingly impossible set of standards becomes second nature.

Soulhuntre The East Wing 1.25.2002 [Draft 3]