Motivation through punishment

July 04, 2017

Parents scold their children to correct their behaviour, hoping that their offspring will discontinue their misbehaviour as a result. What's paradoxical about this kind of punishment is that it can have the opposite effect.

Professor Andreas Eder at the Institute of General Psychology of the University of Würzburg made this discovery during a research project. He has now published his findings in the "Journal of Experimental Psychology: General".

Electric shock as punishment

What was the experiment about? The team of project leader Eder asked test participants to complete a simple task. A number would flash up on a screen. "The participants had to decide whether the number is greater than or smaller than five," the scientist explains. They had to communicate their decision by hitting a key: The left key was for values from one to four and the right key for six to nine.

But previously, the participants had learned that when pressing one of the two keys, they would receive a slightly painful electric shock. "They had experienced to expect discomfort when hitting this key," Eder says. The scientists had assumed that the participants would press the shock-delivering key more slowly.

Surprisingly, the exact opposite was the case. The participants pressed the pain-inducing key even more quickly than before. The scientists were taken aback by this outcome. So punishment alone is not sufficient to stop undesirable behaviour.

Assumptions not confirmed

When looking for an explanation, the scientists assumed that the rapid pressing is caused by heightened arousal. "It could have been that the participants wanted to get over with the pain quickly and would therefore press it more rapidly because they were afraid," Eder says.

But another experiment showed that physical arousal is not responsible for the effect. "Again, the participants were asked to solve the task. Again there were two keys: one causing a weak electric shock, the other delivering a rather strong one."

It turned out that the participants pressed the key more quickly only when this was followed by a weak shock. There was no facilitative effect upon receiving a strong shock despite the fact that the person was more aroused by the latter. So increased arousal is not a plausible explanation for the effect. Then why did the participants expose themselves to the pain more quickly?

"We were able to show that punishment alone does not automatically cause the punished behaviour to be suppressed," Eder sums up the results. Instead, it can even facilitate performing the punished behaviour when applied regularly. "That is the case when the punitive stimulus is used as feedback to control behaviour."

So if it is about the consequence of the behaviour which is anticipated before pressing the key, it should also be possible to induce the reaction facilitation using a neutral stimulus. "A vibration should suffice in that case," Eder says. This assumption was confirmed in further experiments.

Put more simply: The brain uses behavioural consequences to trigger an action more easily even if the consequences are disagreeable for us.

The type of punishment is decisive

The psychologist emphasizes in this context: "It is not that punishment does not work generally. Only it does not always cause the behaviour to be suppressed." Not even when the participants know that something unpleasant will follow.

A paradoxical facilitative effect of punishment is likely if there is no alternative to the punished behaviour, an action needs to be taken quickly and the punishment is rather mild.

Therefore, it is important to also give clear feedback for the desired behaviour as an orientation for the child. Because the child can only learn to stop the undesirable behaviour when it has a clear alternative to the problematic behaviour. Everyday educational practices should focus on pointing out these alternatives to the child.

University of Würzburg

Related Behaviour Articles from Brightsurf:

Infection by parasites disturbs flight behaviour in shoals of fish
Shoal behaviour in fish is an important strategy for them to safeguard their survival.

The influence of social norms and behaviour on energy use
People tend to conform to what others do and what others regard as right.

Brainstem neurons control both behaviour and misbehaviour
A recent study at the University of Helsinki reveals how gene control mechanisms define the identity of developing neurons in the brainstem.

Couples can show linked behaviour in terms of risk factors to prevent type 2 diabetes
New research being presented at this year's Annual Meeting of the European Association for the Study of Diabetes (EASD), held online this year, shows that when one half of a couple shows high levels of certain behaviours that prevent type 2 diabetes, such as good diet or exercise, that behaviour also tends to be high in the other half of the couple.

Addicted to the sun? Research shows it's in your genes
Sun-seeking behaviour is linked to genes involved in addiction, behavioural and personality traits and brain function, according to a study of more than 260,000 people led by King's College London researchers.

Less flocking behavior among microorganisms reduces the risk of being eaten
When algae and bacteria with different swimming gaits gather in large groups, their flocking behaviour diminishes, something that may reduce the risk of falling victim to aquatic predators.

Vibes before it bites: 10 types of defensive behaviour for the false coral snake
The False Coral Snake (Oxyrhopus rhombifer) may be capable of recognising various threat levels and demonstrates ten different defensive behaviours, seven of which are registered for the first time for the species.

Unwanted behaviour in dogs is common, with great variance between breeds
All dog breeds have unwanted behaviour, such as noise sensitivity, aggressiveness and separation anxiety, but differences in frequency between breeds are great.

The Lancet Psychiatry: Life-course-persistent antisocial behaviour may be associated with differences in brain structure
Individuals who exhibit life-course-persistent antisocial behaviour - for example, stealing, aggression and violence, bullying, lying, or repeated failure to take care of work or school responsibilities - may have thinner cortex and smaller surface area in regions of the brain previously implicated in studies of antisocial behaviour more broadly, compared to individuals without antisocial behaviour, according to an observational study of 672 participants published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal.

World-first studies reveal occurrence of 'chew and spit' eating behaviour
A landmark study into the prevalence of the disordered eating behaviour known as 'chew and spit' has revealed concerning levels of such episodes among teenagers.

Read More: Behaviour News and Behaviour Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to