Previously in my theories of justice post, I noted that incentives in the NHL tend to favor aggression:

Hockey has a long standing and deeply established culture of violence. A frequent metaphor for the game is war. Perhaps the worst stigma to be stuck with as a hockey player is “soft”. The entire bottom-end of modern NHL rosters are built around guys that are described as “tough”, “mean”, aggressive”, “hard to play against” etc. There are NHLers whose career depends on continually out-battling the other guy, as being seen as tougher than the rest, as an aggressor; an intimidator. As a result, their perceived value to the coach and the hockey fraternity as whole depends on attacking the opposition. Indeed coaches and GM’s value guys who want to hurt the other team.

Deterring violence and ending acts that endanger health and violate rules is therefore at odds with all sorts of powerful incentives at the other end: namely, is it better to “play with an edge” and risk a few games suspension or not to be in the league at all? To most NHLer’s, it’s no doubt preferable to be considered a scumbag and wrecker than a good guy who is soft.

Incentives is another word for “reinforcement”, which springs from the science of operant conditioning. Behavioral modification began in the realm of classical conditioning or associative learning when Ivan Pavlov showed he could condition dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell. Later, BF Skinner showed that behavior could be learned or extinguished via antecedents or consequences (dubbed “reinforces” and “punishments”).

In the NHL, there are numerous positive reinforcements for acting aggressively: fan approval, coaches praise, career advancement, higher pay checks, etc. It is therefore a difficult task to mandate fewer hits – even dangerous ones – when the rewards tend to flow in the counter direction. That said, operant conditioning and the principles of behavior modification offer some paths to follow if the NHL is serious about limiting or extinguishing dangerous plays.

Three relevant factors of that alter the effect of consequences are:

1.) Immediacy

2.) Contingency

3.) Size

Immediacy is the length of time the consequence follows the targeted behavior. The larger the gap between the two, the less effective the consequence is in affecting the behavior. Contingency means the consequence must consistently and reliably follow the behavior in order to be worthwhile: if the consequence is only rarely or unreliably applied, learning will be much slower. Finally, size refers to the degree to which the consequence will be perceived as significant by the target. For example, a fine of $300 versus and fine of $30,000. The bigger the “size” the more likely it is to affect behavior.

The NHL seems to struggle with contingency and size. The poorly constructed and communicated rules governing discipline (aka: “The Wheel of Justice”) means that players are never really certain about contingency in the NHL when it comes to punishing hits – what is considered “dangerous” behavior? What will the consequences be for me? Nobody knows for sure and as a result players aren’t consistently or aptly deterred from acting overly aggressively (because, remember, they are often rewarded for doing so). Size is the other issue – even when the NHL metes out justice, the consequences are often relatively nominal – small fine or a suspension over a couple of games. In a perpetrators cost-benefit analysis, the size of the punishment must at least be on par or out-weigh the size of the incentives.

As such, the league will likely continue to struggle with discipline until its rules governing dangerous hits/plays become more explicit, more consistently applied and the consequences become more formidable.

The league could potentially be aided in their formulations and considerations of this matter by focusing more on actus reus (the action or objective element of the deed) than mens rea (the mental – or motivational – aspect of the deed). If the goal is extinguish a given behavior (or set of behaviors), then the motivation behind the behavior is actually irrelevant – be it the heat of the moment, pre-mediated or a “hockey play”. Negotiating around intent (and therefore the potential villainy of a perpetrator) can overly complicate behavioral modification, especially in an area like hockey where a certain level of violence is not only expected but applauded. The league would likely be far more successful in their efforts if they chose to strictly define the behaviors they want to eliminate and then consistently applied suitably large consequences to those behaviors regardless of the actors perceived intent or motivation. Meaning no more debates about whether an action was a “hockey play” or not. No more considerations paid to whether “he really meant it”. Punish the act. Punish it swiftly, consistently and with the awareness that you are battling powerful incentives to act violently. Otherwise behavior modification is unlikely to stick.