Sonika Jain


Differential effect of Reward and Punishment on Learning

Published on May, 20 2021

Reward and punishment influence human behaviour but the question is how and to which extend. Reward and punishment are strong modulators of human and animal behaviour. However, despite the great increase in knowledge in the past two decades of the neural basis of the reward effect, and that of punishment to a lesser extent, we lack clear data about how reward and punishment influence the learning of specific behaviour.

Previous laws state that reward increases the probability and punishment will reduce the probability that a certain behaviour will be repeated in the future. According to these laws, the     effects of punishment and reward are symmetric and simply two sides of the same coin. In order to stimulate  learning and to motivate good behaviour, lot of teachers use rewards for students. This way has proved to be beneficial with certain advantages such as appropriate behaviour, increased motivation, joyful students, boosted self-esteem, completed homework, etc. Students conform to appropriate behaviours when rewarded either intrinsically or extrinsically. They will show interest and raise their participation in the everyday classroom tasks, responsibilities and learning. Incentives for students motivate them to be more productive because they create a feeling of pride  and achievement. Being successful makes you happy.

Every success story helps students become more self-confident. They are proud and also encouraged to achieve another successful result. The National Association of School Psychologists suggests that reward systems help motivate students to complete their homework. It’s rather shocking that without rewards, students don’t complete it. Rewarding students encourages and endorses school effort. They lead to improved outcomes for students. But there are some disadvantages too such as addiction, devaluation, race against the clock, control and manipulation, increased pressure etc.

To address this issue, it is important to focus on procedural learning, a distinct learning behaviour that is the foundation of many of our motor skills and perhaps other functions such as cognitive, category, and perceptual learning. Based on further research, it concluded that reward and punishment show asymmetric effects and that rewards have a stronger impact on human behaviour than punishment. Recent studies support the assumption of asymmetry and the idea of reward and punishment influencing behaviour in a distinct manner but in contrast, assume that negative feedback (punishment) appears to be more effective and positive feedback (reward) is not even needed for learning, at least not for implicit learning. Furthermore, reward and punishment have different effects on learning and therefore eventually lead to higher learning rates in a different manner. Punishment increases learning speed (short term, immediate learning rate) and reward increases learning retention (long term learning rate, after hours or days).

Whether people learn better by reward or punishment, and what long-term influence reward and punishment  have on learning cannot be conclusively answered based on the current state of research.

It must be assumed that the influence of reward and punishment on learning is subject to various and partly complex mechanisms of action. For example, reward and punishment appear to be processed in different ways in the brain. Further research is not only required in the context of long-term effects (retention) of reward and punishment, but also under what conditions whether reward or punishment lead to a higher learning rates.