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Reward Vs. Punishment: Which One is More Effective? Let's Discuss

Reward Vs. Punishment: Which One is More Effective?
Human psychology is, perhaps, one of the most interesting subjects of study. We all learn from our experiences which shape our behavior. These experiences are diverse with respect to different stimuli, which can be easily manipulated to change human behavior. On the most basic level, it is positive and negative conditioning, through reward and punishment, respectively. But, which one is more effective and works better on behavior?
Urvashi Pokharna
Last Updated: Feb 24, 2018
Do you know that you can fashion or change a child/a poor student/an addict/a pet/an unproductive employee or close one's behavior through conditioning? But, the question is, which route would you choose - positive or negative? Most people are taught to refrain from engaging in a certain behavior by being given punishments that create negative feelings. This helps maintain discipline at home, school and even organizations. However, it has long been debated as to which one works better on behavior.
Reward vs punishment
If you are an ardent believer of using punishments to modulate a person's behavior, you may have to change your whole belief system because, a recent study conducted by researchers at Harvard University discovered that most people function better in an environment that consists of positive elements that act as rewards. B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning who advocated radical behaviorism, attempted to understand the relationship between behavior conditioning and modification. He also gave us a new school of psychology called the "experimental analysis of behavior" which studies the effect of reward and punishment on human psychology. Since then, the case of 'rewards vs. punishment' has often been debated upon.
Is Reward Better than Punishment?
YES. A person is motivated to learn new behavior if there is an opportunity to gain incentives. Since, a reward is a great way of expressing appreciation or acknowledging the efforts of another person in a positive light, rewards are better than punishments! However, for rewards to be effective, three conditions must be fulfilled;
  • The subject MUST be interested in the reward
  • The reward must be given AFTER accomplishment of the desired action
  • Performance must EXCEED normal standards
The failure of achievement of desired results occurs due to inability to fulfill all the three requisites. Also, it must be noted that the rewards presented not only cause behavior modification, they also lead to creation of values which set the trend for rewards that must be bestowed in future as a part of positive reinforcement. I would like to point out here that, extraordinary results beyond the capabilities of the subject should not be expected.
The Pros of Rewarding
Reaching for carrot
The opportunity to give a reward can also be used to optimum advantage by teaching values that leave a permanent imprint on a person's behavior and hence, can be observed in the long term. By doing so, you can ensure that the benefits of rewarding are not limited to a short span of time. For instance, an employee works in the company for the reward of an attractive monthly salary. Till the time it is valuable to him, he will continue to strive for productivity and optimum performance in order to achieve maximum rewards. However, when the salary loses its appeal due to any reason, he will start to slack and may even quit his job himself. Similarly, bright students often achieve good results for the incentive of top grades, whereas, average or below average students may not be attracted by the pride attached with an 'A' grade. In such a scenario, using rewards to motivate students to perform well is a good option rather than condemning them for their failure to do so.
The Cons of Rewarding
Rewards can also have negative effects. While the above examples illustrate the occurrence of a pleasant event to reward an activity, negative rewards refer to removal of a negative object or preventing the occurrence of a negative event in lieu of desired performance. This is also called negative reinforcement (not punishment). On the other hand, a punishment only helps to decrease the incidence of an action or behavior by enforcing an undesirable stimulus. However, the effectiveness of punishments can be deduced from the findings of a study on this matter by Tulane University. It was found that children who were spanked at the age of 3 years became more aggressive as observed after 2 years. This, perhaps, explains why most couples end up fighting more in a relationship once either partner starts nagging. The study revealed that punishments such as spanking are an ineffective method for behavior modification in children aged below 12 years and should not be used, otherwise they act as a stimulus for bad behavior in the later years.
The Impact of Punishment
But, if punishment is used among children older than that or in young adults, it brings anxiety based along the lines of "what will happen if I don't?". For alteration in behavior to take place and new behavior to be adopted, the source of stimuli employed must be consistently exposed to the targeted subject. If it is inconsistent, behavior may change only temporarily or not at all. But, an inconsistent reward or punishment may be effective when it comes from a powerful or a highly authoritative source. Otherwise, a favorable outcome to be achieved is generally achieved from rewards because most people are inclined to learn from positive experiences faster than negative ones. Punishments harbor negative feelings and often end up being a 100% failure, especially among kids. People often try to resist any form of control. Punishments can only bring forced discipline which ends up backfiring at some point when a person cannot handle the stress and goes into a 'fight or flight' mode. If you are one of those parents who use means of punishment, especially physical, to control your children, you may be hampering their mental development and growth of their IQ! In a debate over reward vs. punishment, rewards emerge as a superior technique of behavior modification and win hands down.
"You get what you reward. Be clear about what you want to get and systematically reward it." ~ Bob Nelson
The Mathematics of Rewards
Rewards are, however, not effective when it takes the form of bribing as they often induce GREED. Any changes in behavior are solely driven by the appeal of the reward and do not bring any real behavior modification. A person does not have to resort to punishments to prevent future incidences of bad behavior. This can also be done by simply changing the motive of behavior instead of trying to curb the behavior itself. Care must be taken that bad behavior is not explicitly classified as being 'undesired' as it may unfavorably fuel reverse psychology. Behavioral motive can be changed by giving rewards for the behavior and then, gradually reducing them until the subject is no longer motivated to exhibit undesired behavior.
Rewarding for positive behavior can be tricky because you don't want to create a generation that thrives only on rewards in order to behave well, and frequently rewarding a misbehaving person to bring up his/her morale is also not fair to those who show good behavior without the stimulus of a reward. Most people have a controlling streak and want to amend all actions and behavior in others that they think may lead to disharmony later. When you are irritated by a person's behavior, try to ignore it by showing your appreciation for his/her actions that delight you by acknowledging it with words or rewarding with gifts.
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