A “Whole Brain” Theory of Human Motivation – Part 3: Rewards & Punishments

In obvious ways, rewards and punishments are total opposites. Rewards focus on reinforcing behaviors that we’d like to see more of. Punishments focus on deterring behaviors that we’d like to eliminate. Rewards leave the recipient feeling good, which is why they work to change behavior. Punishments leave the recipient feeling pain, which is how they work to change behavior.

What are some examples of rewards and reward-based strategies?

Performance bonuses – “If you sell this much, we’ll give you an extra $5,000 at the end of year.”

Special recognition – “You are the smartest kid in the class.”

Praise – “Good job!”

Approval – “You make your dad/mom/teacher/boss/company so proud!”

Treats – “You ate your dinner quickly and quietly, so now you can have dessert.”

Bribes – “If you eat your dinner quickly and quietly, you can have dessert.”

What about punishments? They can change behavior by actually inflicting upon or just threatening:

Physical pain – hitting, spanking, beating, deprivation, restriction

Emotional pain – guilting, embarrassment, separation, scaring, ignoring, intimidation, excluding, confusing

Psychological pain – shaming, humiliation, instilling fear, learned helplessness, trauma, isolation

In subtle but very important ways, especially as we continue to talk about the differences between healthy and unhealthy motivation, rewards and punishments are the same. Rewards and punishments are mechanisms to reinforce the behaviors that the rewarders and punishers believe are “good” or “good for you.” Whether the recipient believes it’s good or good for them doesn’t matter as much, as these methods can bypass our more sophisticated ways of feeling and thinking. In fact, even if the specific goal of the reward or punishment is to teach what is good or good for you, by choosing either of these strategies, “learning a lesson” is unlikely to be the outcome. Correction – lessons are likely to be learned, but just not the intended ones. This is because these behavior modifying strategies are influencing the more “primitive” parts of our brain.

For rewards, they influence a system in the brain that is appropriately named “the reward circuit” where feel-good chemicals are released when we have a pleasurable experience. This feeling is short lived and there’s an immediate motivation for wanting more of the same – that’s why it’s described as a circuit. If we do get more of the same then the cycle repeats –  the feel good chemicals are released again, but to a lesser degree. This perceptible change creates a motivation for even more of the same to make up the difference. This “reasoning” explains the existence of high-end buffets in Las Vegas, as well as the reason why at some point most of us stop going to high-end buffets in Las Vegas. If there is no opportunity for more, the brain looks for immediate gratification of any comparable sort. These substitute decisions tend to be impulsive, short-sighted, and can be irrational as we are often pretty willing to accept lesser alternatives when we don’t have many choices in front of us. “I really want to have a nice meal tonight, but it’s going to be so crowded everywhere and I can’t wait. Oh look, a McDonald’s!”

If some of this reminds you of an addiction, it’s because this is the mechanism of addiction. The reward circuit is the system in our brain that gets hijacked by certain drugs, sugary foods, and overly stimulating activities. This also explains why with these types of “rewards” there’s always going to be a need to keep adjusting upwards in terms of the intensity or quantity of the stimulus, or that the rewards need to be constantly changed.

In this way, we can see how an innocent system of giving stickers for sitting quietly turns into buying toys for good grades, and then into expectations of a raise for doing your job, and a lifetime of seeking the approval of others. What is lost in this system of external motivation is the development of internal character to be thoughtful of others, a love of learning driven by curiosity, innovative and creative workplaces, or the development of an inherent self-worth.

Another important factor in relationship to how our minds work has to do with our memories. The way that our brain stores memories is biased towards the most intense parts of our experiences (positive or negative) and how the experiences end (see Daniel Kahneman talk about his research in this area here). So despite our hopes that rewards help people to appreciate the unique aspects of a long journey or what we feel are the more subtle but meaningful parts of a past experience, what is more likely to happen is that what anchors the memory is the reward – because the reward creates the most intense emotional response and tends to mark the end of these memories. The motivation then is linked to the outcome, not the process. What is diminished or entirely lost in the process are the growth opportunities or the inherent gratification of the experience. Kids may value the trophy more than the hard work it took to get it. Adults fret about getting bonuses, rather than doing their best work.

When we experience punishments or the threat of punishments, a second part of the brain gets activated – the limbic system. This is where some of our basic emotions originate, including fear. It’s also where we make snap judgments about whether something is “good” or “bad” without the cognitive capacity for much subtlety in between. Our memories are stored here as well, which shape these quick and dirty judgments based on what we remember from past experiences (which I just mentioned are prone to bias). What’s not part of the limbic system are the parts of the human mind that can think critically, creatively, relationally, collaboratively or longitudinally – all the types of things that we’d like people to do when we advocate punishment. Like when we want our kids to “think about what you did wrong” after they’ve been yelled at and put in a time-out. Or when we give the silent treatment to our spouses. Or any version of a “scared straight” strategy. Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between what we wish for versus what is possible through this type of motivational strategy. The type of thinking we are capable of doing in this simpler part of the brain is quick, instinctual, habitual, short-sighted and self-interested. Not the best strategy for meaningful long-term growth. Back to our memories, when punishments are involved, they’re also most likely to be bookended by what we remember being the most intense part, probably beginning at the moment of getting caught, and ending with the punishment. Then a generic cycle perpetuates where all experiences of getting caught and punished are linked, because neurons that fire together, wire together – losing the details about each unique experience through a generalized belief about wanting to avoid getting caught to avoid getting punished. Sadly, the more effective the punishment or threat, the more likely that this part of the brain is the only part of the brain that gets activated. So it’s a situation that’s destined to fail if our larger goals are to use these experiences as “teaching moments” – because higher order thinking and assigning more complex meaning to memories can’t happen.

So we’ve put another nail in the coffin for Behaviorism. Externally motivating factors, both rewards and punishments, may change behavior but only temporarily or with limits – at the expense of learning, maturity, and personal growth. They diminish the inherent positive feelings associated with our greater human experience, such as accomplishment, autonomy, competency and creativity. They put us in a self-oriented state of mind, making it harder for us to be in tuned with the needs of others. And it takes a lot of resources to keep supplying the need for ever more appealing carrots or more threatening sticks.

Hopefully you’ve been swayed to consider using neither punishments or rewards as a motivating tool and to be wary when others try to use them on you. Then what are we left with? We’ll find out more healthy and sustainable ways to be motivated in part 4, where we will look at research that demonstrates both the short and long term effects when externally and internally motivating strategies are compared. For those that can’t wait – *SPOILER ALERT* – internally motivating strategies are way better.

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