Reward vs. Punishment – Which Results in Better Learning?

In the world of college and professional sports, some coaches are notorious for having a short fuse, and for utilizing what some would consider a punitive (or abusive) style of coaching.

Legendary Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight comes to mind, whose controversial dismissal in 2000 was in response to allegations of abusive behavior (such as the 1997 choking incident ).

The recent movie Whiplash  featured a similar figure (though fictitious, of course) – a teacher whom I’m guessing most of us would just as soon avoid if we could.

But for better or worse, some of these high-profile coaches (or teachers) seem to get results, which makes one wonder…

Which approach results in better learning? Is it possible that punishment could (…gulp) result in greater learning than a reward-based approach?

The “reaching” task

A team of researchers recruited 42 participants to compare the two approaches using a classic motor learning task that is often used in such studies.

Essentially, the task is to manipulate a cursor on a screen, by moving your hand in a quick “shooting” motion to get the cursor to pass through a target. Think Fruit Ninja , but played with a mouse (and with fruit that doesn’t move), and you get the general idea.

The challenge of course, is that after giving the participants an opportunity to get the hang of the setup, they alter the calibration so that the hand motion which used to make the cursor go up, now makes the cursor go 30 degrees to the right. Annoying at first, but something you can learn to adapt to with a bit of practice.

The rules of the game

Participants were divided up into three groups – one group was the “reward” group, another was the “punishment” group, and the last was the control group (which received points for each attempt just like the other groups, but totally at random and not at all associated with their performance).

The reward group started off with £0 (yep, this was a British study), and was told that they could win money by accruing more points. They would get 4 points for hitting the target, 3 for an error of <10°, 2 for an error of <20°, 1 for an error of <30°, and 0 for an error of >30°.

The punishment group, on the other hand, started off with £12, and was told that they would lose money depending on their score. There would be no points penalty if they hit the target, but would receive a -1 point penalty for errors <10°, -2 points for errors <20°, -3 points for errors <30°, and -4 points for errors >30°.

Reward vs. Punishment vs. Control – on adaptation

The participants all started out with ~100 practice trials, where they got acclimated to the task. Then, they had to do another ~100 trials without any visual feedback.

Then the fun began as the researchers rotated the calibration 30° counter-clockwise, and started doling out points for each hit or miss.

Quick! Before we proceed with the results, take a moment to think about this. Which group do you think learned fastest?

The researchers found that the negative points and loss of money led to faster rates of learning. And not because they were taking longer to plan out their moves or because they were being more cautious or careful – as there were no significant differences in movement times between groups.

The researchers also ran a test to see if it was the loss of money which accelerated learning, or simply the negative feedback. As it turns out, the negative feedback didn’t need to be connected to any loss of money. Even when the participants were told that accumulating negative points would not affect their payment, it still resulted in faster motor adaptation.

Reward vs. Punishment vs. Control – on retention

The researchers were not just curious about how quickly one might be able to improve performance in the moment (note that there’s a difference between adaptation during practice and long-term retention or learning – read this for a refresher), but also wondered how reward or punishment might affect the durability of their learning. As in, how long would they be able to retain what they had learned?

So, after the trials for points and money, the researchers tweaked the setup so that there was no visual feedback. So while the participants could still see the target, they received no visual feedback about their movements, and had no idea how accurate their movements were. This was to test the participants’ retention of what they had just practiced, to see how long it would take for their performance to degrade (sort of like, if you plugged up your ears so that you couldn’t hear sound anymore, how long would it take for you to play increasingly out of tune?).

Want to take a guess as to what happened in this set of trials?

Although the groups started off performing at the same level in the blind trials, the punishment group’s performance (as well as the control group) decayed significantly faster than the reward group’s performance, indicating that reward feedback seems to result in greater retention of motor skill learning.

Take action

Obviously, the takeaway here is not that extreme, severe, emotionally scarring levels of negative feedback are justifiable or worth adding to your toolbox of teaching strategies. After all, we all know how it has affected us not just emotionally, but in our ability to perform effectively, when feedback (whether intentionally or unintentionally) has led us to feel shame, guilt, or some sense that falling short of expectations makes us less of a person.

If anything, the study simply underscores the complexity of motor learning, and how there are different systems in play which affect different aspects of learning. And when it comes to coaching and teaching complex skills, I still find John Wooden or Pat Summit‘s instructive approach to be most appealing.

Nevertheless, the authors suggest that there may be times when thoughtful, measured, and appropriate “negative” feedback could be helpful in accelerating the rate of learning – after which rewards could be implemented to help reinforce or cement the desired behavior into place.

So…what do you think? Have you found any benign negative feedback strategies that have been helpful in your teaching, and in cultivating confident, courageous, and resilient artists?

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14 Responses

  1. This actually makes a lot of sense. I assume what’s happening is the negative feedback is activating a temporary stress/fight or flight response, which temporarily boosts performance. It makes sense that this wouldn’t be sustainable. Definitely a good thing to ponder! Thanks for the great article (and wonderful blog overall)!

  2. …thoughtful, measured, and appropriate “negative” feedback…” That seems a wildly objective phrase whose interpretation is loaded with potential damage for a student and requires the attention of another of your fine articles. Instructors are rarely psychologists and negativity in the hands of an even mildly unempathic teacher untrained in such techniques can be a loaded gun. Negative feedback is rarely delivered unemotionally and that emotional energy can deepen a potent and lasting wound.
    In my opinion, unless an instructor is very well informed as to how to wield this tool, extreme caution and a lot more knowledge is necessary.

  3. The only negative feedback I ever got that helped or mattered to me was when doing something didn’t give me the result I wanted, not when it caused anyone to scream and rant in my face. To any basketball player, the ONLY negative feedback they need is “ball did not go in basket,” not “coach threw chair at my face.”

    Seriously — the instrument gives you all the negative and positive feedback you will ever need while you’re learning how to play it. Sports are the same. The negative feedback that hits hardest is when you simply lose, not when you’re punched in the face by the coach.

  4. Positive feedback and encouragement work much better, in my experience. There are three salient exceptions for me. The first have been subtle hints that I had disappointed my teacher. The second is a few rare occasions when my teacher very bluntly told me that my interpretation of something was just, flat wrong. He was such a positive, nurturing person that it had an immediate and dramatic effect. The third, and perhaps most lasting, was damning with faint praise: “That was not unpleasant.” Oooh, the burn.

  5. Dear Dr Kageyama,

    In this summary, or possibly in the original study, there is a conflation of “punishment” with “loss of financial reward”. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous conflation to make, particularly when it comes to teaching practice.

    There is a good amount of literature on a condition described as ‘loss aversion’. Effectively, people place a higher value on the loss of a thing that they already have, than the value they place on gaining a similar thing of the same value. For example, if I offered to wager ten dollars on the tossing of a coin with you, I would expect you, and most people, to decline. This is the case, even though in economic terms you stand to lose as much as you gain. For most people, I would need to give significantly better odds before they would agree to top the coin – heads you win twenty dollars, tails you only lose ten dollars. Now you will be much more inclined to take the wager.

    Loss aversion has been widely studied in the behavioural economics and in the psychology literature. It shows up in a wide range of human behaviour, at both an individual and a social level. It can help explain, for example, why a community will protest over the closing down of a low quality school or hospital in a neighbourhood, even though they will be provided with a significantly improved quality school or hospital in a neighbourhood five or ten miles away, along with transportation, etc. They feel the lose more acutely than they feel the gain.

    This is clearly what is happening in the study you cite above. The subjects are feeling loss aversion when they lose points or money for weak performance in the test.

    This risk comes when, in a pedagogical setting, a teacher may conflate this loss aversion examined in the study, with types of negative feedback or punishment, benign or otherwise. This is especially the case when the ‘punishment’ or negative feedback is provided after the fact.

    Some accurate ways to understand and use loss aversion in a teaching setting might be:
    A student does not practice regularly. The parent gives the student $6 at the beginning of the week, to practice consistently for a half hour a night for six days. At the end of the week, the student must give back $1 for every day of practice missed. The student will feel the potential loss more acutely than they would feel the gain of $6 at the end of the week, and thus would be inclined to practice more.

    A teacher give a student a nice shiny A, or a nice round 100 points, at the beginning of a class, and makes clear that for every test or assessment the student misses, grades will be lost and points deducted (all set at an objective level, with clear rules, and clear guidelines that the student understands for what needs to be achieved to not face the loss). The student feels the loss of the perfect score more acutely than they would otherwise feel the gain of trying to slowly build up a grade.

    To be clear, I’m not necessarily saying that I advocate the two examples above, just that they more accurately represent what we could learn from the study, and from the literature on loss aversion.

    I do, though, think that it is important to understand what the behavioural effect is before we start trying to incorporate it in teaching practice.

    Thanks for running an interesting and thought provoking blog.

    1. Indeed, “punishment” is a pretty loaded word, and even the phrase “negative feedback” can easily be misinterpreted and misapplied.

      Good point about loss aversion. The researchers do acknowledge that this could have contributed to the results, but it seems that what they find most fascinating about their data is that the two reinforcement strategies have different effects on two different aspects of learning (i.e. rewarding desirable performance with points or monetary rewards boosts retention while deducting points or monetary rewards in response to undesirable performance boosts rate of adaptation).

      Reminds me of a great quote I came across recently that you might like, and which seems to relate to the subject of this study: “Very few things are as dangerous as a bunch of incentive-driven individuals trying to play it safe.” ~Alfie Kohn

  6. I think positive encourage always encourages better performance in the long run. My father wanted me to learn the electrical trade and everytime I screwed up he yelled at me. I never became an electrician, I became a musician instead.

  7. I think the best thing I can do for my students is offer honest feedback. Somewhere along the line, especially in schools, there has been a trend toward “good job” when nothing has occurred that merits validation. There is a way to deliver honest feedback positively, but students (& parents) are quick to feel that honesty is threatening or negative.

  8. There’s also the issue of which approach will be persistently successful — which one will result in a kid not merely winning next week’s competition but will result in a kid growing into an adult who still plays and enjoys it. I have a strong feeling that the latter has more long-term gains, and I think we need to keep this sort of thing in mind when we express shock and dismay when kids reach the age of about 15 and stop taking music lessons. Did they really want to be there in the first place? Were they punished into doing it all along, and now that they are older, they just aren’t going to be forced into it anymore?

    Ultimately, the only thing that works is when the kid finds the activity itself rewarding and doing it improperly the punishment. In the end, that’s ALL that matters. Yes, you can punish a kid who hates the flute into playing it well, at least for a while, but there is no teaching approach in the world that will make that kid love it when they are really meant to be an artist, accountant, or baseball player.

    In the end, parents and teachers need to just follow the kid’s natural inclinations and love the kid nature gave them instead of trying to turn them into the kid they wish they’d had. I’m glad I had parents who did that. I really think that “should I punish or reward my kid to force them to do what I want?” ends up being the wrong question. You should encourage your kid to follow their own inclinations, and that will be enough.

    There’s also some far bleaker issues to consider. I think of Andre Agassi and Steffi Graf, both of whom were threatened and punished into playing tennis, and neither of whom will so much as touch a tennis racket anymore. They enjoyed short-term success, but both hated it, stopped as soon as they could, and have horribly conflicted, damaged relationships with their parents now because of it. Maybe that might work in sports, where people have shorter careers anyway, but in music, you can expect to keep doing it over the age of 40. So there’s also that larger issue of whether or not a parent wants their kid to win that violin competition so badly that they are willing to sign away a happy, functional relationship with them to get it. Google Guila Bustabo to learn about what that can result in musically.

    It may not even work for a kid who loves music and is meant to do it. Look at Gabriela Montero, who has been playing piano literally since she was in the crib. She had the hard luck to run into a nasty, uninspired teacher who did everything in her power to crush all enjoyment out of her for a decade. Montero is still a wonderful, successful concert pianist today, but she never mentions that teacher by name; furthermore most pianists sort of know who she’s talking about anyway, and now that woman has the dubious fame of being that idiot who nearly destroyed a miraculous improviser’s career. Oy.

  9. When considering reward vs punishment, or negative feedback, individual personalities need to be considered. Too much negative feedback causes many, more sensitive, people to shut down. Especially children and teens.!

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