about-to-be-spanked child who has heard a parent piously
pronounce "this hurts me more than it hurts you" can
today reply, "Not according to modern science, it
A new study out of England suggests that parents are likely
hitting their children 40 per cent harder than they think they
Daniel Wolpert, a professor of neuroscience at University
College London, said his research was inspired by a
contradiction he observed in the child's game of
The game is played with two people. One puts their hands out
palms up, while the other places both hands palms down slightly
above them. The lower-handed player then tries to slap the hands
The contradiction is that "the child doing the hitting
gets great pleasure, while the child getting hit feels to a
large extent just pain," Prof. Wolpert said.
This inspired him and his colleagues to conduct a series of
laboratory experiments where test subjects were told to push on
someone else's fingers with the same force that the other person
had previously pushed on them.
The researchers discovered that there was an almost uniform
overestimation of how much force it took to equal the initial
pressure the participants felt. Eventually, the misreading
resulted in a kind of pressure war with each participant upping
The English group quickly realized their research, which is
published today in the journal Science, had implications outside
the laboratory. "Ours is effectively a very mild form of
spanking. So it could be when a parent smacks, he or she
underestimates the force they are applying to a child,"
Prof. Wolpert said about one obvious larger implication of the
It is a judgment that experts in the area of spanking say is
backed up by a host of other evidence.
"Two-thirds of all cases of physical abuse started out
as spankings and corporal punishment and then get out of hand.
The parent hits the kid, and the kid hits back. So the parent
ups the ante, the kid responds, the ante goes up again, and
eventually the parents are not able to judge just what they are
doing," says Murray Straus, a University of New Hampshire
Prof. Wolpert said his research suggests that people's
inability to actually gauge how hard they are whacking others
means that parents who try to spank no harder than they remember
being spanked may well over-hit.