Punishment or reward: What are humans motivated by?


Fact Box

  • The Positive Discipline Model used in parenting and classroom management was first introduced in Germany in the 1920s and advocates that there are no good or bad children, just good and bad behaviors. Its methods acknowledge that “good behavior can be taught and reinforced while weaning the bad behaviors without hurting the child verbally or physically.” 
  • Employee engagement firm TINYpulse recently conducted a survey asking participants what motivates them to excel and go the extra mile at work. The most popular answer, garnering 20% of the total responses, was neither punishment nor reward, but rather camaraderie or peer motivation.
  • As of 2016, nineteen US states still allow corporal punishment in schools from the pre-school years up until 12th grade: Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Wyoming.
  • Eighteenth-century polymath Jeremy Bentham wrote that “pain and pleasure govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.” He was also the founder of Utilitarianism, a philosophy claiming that “an action (or type of action) is right if it tends to promote happiness or pleasure and wrong if it tends to produce unhappiness or pain—not just for the performer of the action but also for everyone else affected by it.”

Andrew (Punishment)

Prominent thinkers going back to Marquis de Sade have known that punishment is a more effective motivator than reward because humans are wired to prefer loss aversion over conditional gain. A University of Chicago experiment demonstrated this by dividing a group of teachers, telling one group that they would receive a bonus if their students' test scores improved, while the other group would have to return a bonus paid upfront if their students' scores stayed the same. The latter group of teachers outperformed the former significantly, indicating that the fear of losing an already-paid bonus was a stronger motivator than the promise of a bonus yet to be delivered.

Psychologists have observed that rewards lose their effectiveness over time, a phenomenon called the 'overjustification effect.' In studies, children who were rewarded for simple things like sharing or drawing learned to only exhibit those behaviors when the opportunity for a reward was present--in stark contrast to their peers. In such cases, the conversation around rewards quickly turns from 'if you do this, you'll get that' to 'how much will I get if I do this?'

Also, rewards are known to reduce creativity. In a study where individuals were given a selection of objects and asked to use them to attach a candle to the wall, those who were offered a reward took much longer to complete the task. This is because reward-based thinking narrows our ability to think creatively.

Humans are hard-wired to avoid loss and pain, and therefore punishment is a more effective motivator than reward. Punishment also maintains its efficacy over time and does not reduce creative thinking.

Sheryll (Reward)

While both reward and punishment influence human behavior to some degree, the anticipation of a reward has generally been found to be a stronger motivator. 

Neuroscientists believe that our inclination to be motivated by reward more than punishment has to do with how our brains evolved. When we are promised a reward--whether it is a piece of cake or a promotion-- we're wired to perceive it as a prize that demands us to take some type of action. Our brains essentially believe that the surest way to getting a reward is by getting something done. So when we know something good is coming, our minds automatically initiate a little signal, which pushes us to act. 

On the other hand, punishment is understood to have more of a demotivating effect on people. This is because the threat of punishment is often more likely to cause fear and anxiety in a person, which, in turn, can lead to someone choosing to give up rather than taking action. One study even demonstrated that offering people small financial incentives for eating healthily or exercising was more effective at changing behavior than warning of obesity or disease. 

Research also shows that the human brain processes positive information differently from negative information. Our minds generally prefer to be more optimistic, perceiving punishments or threats as things that are unlikely to happen while also believing that rewards are highly attainable. 

Therefore, rather than scaring ourselves into action, highlighting the rewards that come with hard work may help us better reach our goals.

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