Study: Rewards less motivating than punishments

The effectiveness of sticks is threefold compared to that of carrots, Washington University finds

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Punishments have a greater influence on human behavior than rewards, according to the results of an experiment devised by Washington University School of Medicine published in an online journal, Cognition.

The study, involving 88 university students, finds that losses are three times more effective at changing human behavior than gains.

“Regarding teaching strategies, our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback at modifying behavior,” said Jan Kubanek, lead author of the study and postdoctoral research associate in anatomy and neurobiology at Washington University.

However, the amount of the negative feedback doesn’t matter; people just want “to avoid punishments or dangerous situations.”

“Rewards, on the other hand, have less of a life-threatening impact,” added Kubanek.

One group students participated in the research were asked to tell whether they heard more clicks in the left or right ear. In another group students have made the same left or right choice when they were shown the flashes of light in a screen. The number of clicks and flashes on each side randomized so that they stayed very close together, leaving students uncertain with their choices.

Whenever a student made a choice, researchers showed a token of a random reward - worth 5, 10, 15, 20, 25 cents – for the correct answer or deducted it as a punishment.

The results showed that the ones who lost money tended to make a correct choice afterwards.

“Objectively, you’d think that winning 25 cents would have the same magnitude of effect as losing 25 cents, but that’s not what we find,” said Kubanek.

TRTWorld and agencies