If you missed our previous article on the pursuit of good habits, here’s a quick recap. Human behavior is moldable, and habit-building can help shape it through two primary processes: reinforcement and repetition. While repetition isn’t rocket science, reinforcement is more open to interpretation. In this article, we will discuss two types of reinforcements and what impact do punishments have on our behavior

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement follows a behavior. It increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. Here’s the catch though—it can be both positive and negative. Positive reinforcement adds a pleasant stimulus or reward, after the behavior occurs, increasing the future incidence of that behavior. For example, if we achieve a goal at work (desirable behavior), our boss rewards us with praise (pleasant stimulus or reward). This incentivizes us to keep performing. On the other hand, negative reinforcement removes an undesirable stimulus after the behavior occurs, increasing the future incidence of that behavior. For example, if we complete work by Friday (desirable behavior), we do not have to work on Saturday (removal of unpleasant stimulus). This encourages us to finish our tasks beforehand again in the future.

Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, which also follows a behavior. The two are, in fact, starkly different. Unlike reinforcement, punishment decreases the chance that a behavior will occur again. Let’s look at how positive and negative punishments impact behaviors.

Positive punishment adds an undesirable stimulus after a behavior occurs, decreasing the future incidence of that behavior; while negative punishment removes a pleasant stimulus after a behavior occurs, decreasing the future incidence of that behavior. For example, our manager reprimands us (addition of unpleasant stimulus) if we make a habit of missing deadlines (undesirable behavior)—this disincentivizes us from missing deadlines again. Or, if we take too many leaves from work (undesirable behavior), we lose employee benefits (removal of pleasant stimulus), which may make us rethink our actions.

Even though punishment acts as an effective deterrent, is it the best way to engineer positive action in the workplace?

The Key to Motivating Action

The 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham once wrote, “Pain and pleasure govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.” In the modern age, however, we know that one may be more effective than the other in encouraging action. Numerous studies show a consensus among neuroscientists that rewards, a form of positive reinforcement, are more useful than negative stimuli, like punishment, in motivating desirable behavior. That’s because while fear and anxiety hold us back by inhibiting responses, the expectation of something ‘good’ drives us to act. A common example of this would be our own reaction—we will be more motivated to perform if we’re told what we did right than if we are threatened with the negative consequences of not achieving goals.

Whether we’re trying to engineer new behaviors in our own lives, or helping inculcate them in others, it’s important to know what drives and shapes human attitudes. This way, we can tailor more effective strategies for building good habits.


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