Carrot vs. Stick: Punishment May Be More Effective In Directing Behaviours, More Than Rewards

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Students read during their class at a school in Bangkok October 30, 2014.
IN PHOTO: Students read during their class at a school in Bangkok October 30, 2014. The generals who led a coup in May have prioritised school reforms to inculcate a strong sense of national identity - or Thai-ness - in a country whose traditional values hinge on unquestioning respect for the monarchy, religion and elders. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Inducing punishment rather than giving out rewards may be more effective in motivating individuals, a new study suggests. Although new teaching approaches and management techniques are geared towards the effectivity of affirmation as a tool for encouragement, this new research found that negative feedback is actually more efficient in improving behaviours by up to three times than the reward system.

The study, published in the science journal Cognition, was conducted by asking 88 students to determine the number of clicks that they can perceive in their right and left ears. For every correct answer, the student was given a cash reward, whilst each wrong answer had a corresponding monetary deduction. It was found that the participants who experienced decreased in their cash sum were able to perform better as the study experiment continued.

"Our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback at modifying behaviour,” said Dr Jan Kubanek, study lead author from the the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, US. “Such feedback does not have to be harsh, since it appears that we tend to react in the same manner to any amount of negative feedback. From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to avoid punishments or dangerous situations. Rewards, on the other hand, have less of a life-threatening impact." In an objective perspective, one would think that giving and taking out 25 cents from the participants would produce the same effect; however, this was not the case for the said study, added Kubanek.

According to the authors, removing rewards for incorrect answers rather than giving extra points for correct ones may yield more improved results. This is because the participants were more likely to strive harder not to make the same error again.

"The question of how rewards and punishments influence behaviour has occupied psychologists for over 100 years,” said Professor Richard Adams, co-author and psychologist. The challenge lies in formulating efficient ways on how to investigate the matter. In the recent study, the researchers utilised a technique that showcased the significant deviations in the manner in which individuals respond to different kinds of feedback, Adams closed.

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