Do it or Else: Punishment as a Performance Enhancer

Researchers find that monetary punishment may work as well as financial rewards for boosting performance.

It turns out you might work harder if you think you’ll be fired than if you’re expecting a raise.

“This work reveals important new information about how the brain functions that could lead to new methods of diagnosing neural development disorders, such as autism, ADHD, and personality disorders, where decision making processes have been shown to be compromised,” study leader Dr. Marios Philiastides said in a press release.

Philiastides’ team sought to test how well humans make decisions based on vague information, such as sights and sounds, and how the idea of punishment affects that decision making.

How Punishment Helps Us Perform

To see what happens in a person’s brain when he or she makes a decision, researchers used an electroencephalogram (EEG): essentially a rubber swimmer’s cap fitted with electrodes that measure electrical activity in the brain.

Study participants were hooked up to the EEG and given a simple task: determine whether a blurred shape behind a rainy window is a human or something else. If a participant guessed incorrectly, he or she was fined.

Researchers found that participants gave more correct answers as the fine amount increased. To the researchers, this suggested that punishment increases a person’s performance in much the way a reward does.

The EEG machine revealed that distinct parts of the brain became active when the punishment was applied. Researchers said the timing of this activation showed that the punishment doesn’t influence how the brain processes evidence, but it does impact how the brain decodes information at a later stage in the decision making process.

The study subjects who improved the accuracy of their guesses the most also showed the greatest changes in brain activity. Further research may reveal precisely why some people respond better to rewards for good behavior while others respond more strongly to punishment for bad behavior.

Autism, ADHD, and Decision-Making

Scientists are continually exploring how the human brain works and how to make it work better. There’s been extensive research into behavioral disorders, including autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The current understanding is that people with these disorders have problems with information processing in their brains. This is why children with autism and ADHD may exhibit social and developmental delays.

Just as Philiastides said, future research into how the brain reacts to rewards and punishments could help experts get a better handle on these conditions and make everyday life decisions easier for patients in need.

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