We humans have built a society where every right action is applauded with a reward and every incorrect or wrong action is condemned by punishments. We humans have a strong belief in what Aristotle calls ‘poetic justice’, where the right is always rewarded and the wrong is punished. This two-way mechanism works with lower animals – dog and horse trainers, for example, use food treats to reinforce the behavior they want – so it should work with humans, or so the logic goes. If you want a certain behavior out of prisoners, for example, behaviorists advise giving privileges as a reward for obeying the rules and punishment for disobeying them.
The problem is that human behavior isn’t that simple, because we have inner lives. A dog or horse will be content with a steady supply of food and a warm place to live. Those things are barely the minimum for meeting human needs. There is another duality besides reward-punishment that plays a huge part in the career arc of every successful person: encouragement-discouragement.
To be encouraged means literally to acquire courage, while to be discouraged is to give in to fear. Soldiers need courage to charge into battle, and without it, they won’t. Every person conceals a level of fear and anxiety inside, however, and in order to meet life’s challenges and crises, we all have to discover how much courage we have. This is a prime example of why reward-punishment is inadequate on its own. To face your fears isn’t a pleasant experience that anyone would consider a reward – it’s much closer to being a punishment. Yet in the long run, many accomplishments in life come our way only if we overcome fear and acquire courage.
These issues come up as early as grade school, where teachers traditionally offer rewards, in the form of gold stars, high grades, and personal praise. The drawbacks of this approach have been noticed in recent years, and they apply to adults as well.
The negatives of rewards as an incentive:
- It creates a divide: winners and losers.
- The losers are under-motivated.
- Losers resent winners, leading to passive aggression and non-cooperation.
- The winners can become pampered, egotistical, and selfish.
- Bonds between people are frayed; no sense of “us” as a community.
- External rewards do nothing for inner needs such as acceptance and belonging.
- Competitiveness becomes exaggerated, leading to hostility and vicious rivalry.
This is certainly NOT what we want to teach our students.
Instead of rewards and punishments if encouragement and discouragement is chosen, it would give better and positive results.
The advantages of encouragement as an incentive:
- It develops a stronger sense of self.
- People feel included and accepted.
- The group moves forward for the benefit of everyone.
- Fear of failure is reduced.
- People feel that they are not alone in facing a crisis.
- A stronger sense of self diminishes anxiety.
- Resilience in the face of challenges is able to grow.
- Group productivity is increased.
So how do we abolish the practice of rewards and punishments? The following ways will help:
- Reach out to make someone else feel accepted.
- Take a goal-oriented perspective that solves a challenge for everyone, not just you.
- Bond with others by paying personal attention to them.
- Start thinking inclusively.
- Do what you can to make yourself more secure and then extend this to others.
- Improve the work environment for everyone, not just the elites.
- Afford dignity to everyone.
- Think in terms of a shared future.
Certainly, encouragements-discouragements are better than rewards and punishments.