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Rewards vs punishment:What to choose?

YOU ARE probably familiar with the conflicting adages, ?Spare the rod and spoil the child? and ?You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.? Which should you believe? Will you spoil a child by not using punishments, or is it better to stick with rewards?

india Updated: Dec 19, 2006 01:47 IST

YOU ARE probably familiar with the conflicting adages, “Spare the rod and spoil the child” and “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Which should you believe? Will you spoil a child by not using punishments, or is it better to stick with rewards?

The purpose of punishment is to weaken a behaviour or lessen its likelihood. But generally it suppresses a response only for a short time. In most cases the undesired response will reappear later. Most psychological research concludes that a child disciplined with rewards will show better emotional adjustment than one disciplined with punishments.

Since punishment is generally either painful or frustrating, it can lead to aggression. A psychological study found boys who were severely punished for aggression at home tended to be overly aggressive in school.

If a child is punished by parents and teachers, an aversion or dislike for them is likely to develop. In addition the child will tend to avoid activities associated with parents and teachers.

Sometimes a punishment can have elements of positive reinforcement. A teacher may believe she is punishing a six-year-old boy when she shouts, “Ankit, don’t move out of your seat again.

You never sit still.” In reality, Ankit is gaining the attention he is seeking. Classmates turn and notice him and the teacher becomes totally preoccupied with his problem.

The next time Ankit feels the need for attention, he will know that getting out of his seat and walking around the classroom will win the notice he wants. One way the teacher could avoid this dilemma is to put more emphasis on Ankit’s positive behaviour.

Remarks such as, “Look how nicely Ankit is sitting. I wish everyone would sit and work like him ” would give Ankit a rewarding alternative. Punishment situations arise far beyond the classroom and home. Prisons are a classic example of attempts at negative reinforcement that sometimes work and sometimes do not. Statistics on repeat offenders are alarming. Again it seems that punishment is more effective when combined with a positive experience or alternative.

Interestingly, our local jail has incorporated several activities such as carpentry, carpet-making, screen printing etc to redirect prisoners by giving positive reinforcement for desired behaviours.

Try shaping behaviour
A MOTHER might complain that she would indeed love to reward her teenage son for keeping his room clean, but she never has the opportunity. It would be a long wait for a neat room. Consequently she may resort to punishment for his untidiness. What sort of alternatives does the mother have? One possibility is ‘shaping’ her son’s behaviour. The first thing to do is to define your objective or target behaviour. In this case, the target behaviour would be getting her son to clean his room completely.

When her son picks up his shoes to wear then, she notices how much better the floor looks without his shoes thrown here or there. She rewards him with praise and maybe a dish he prefers.

The next step might require her son to pick up his wet towels, before any praise and reinforcement comes his way. From this, he will also need to fold his clothes and put them in the cupboard to win the same reward. Finally, he will be rewarded with praise and reinforcement, only if his room is totally tidy.

Even schools use this type of shaping. In the first standard you were promoted if you could recognize the letters of the alphabet and write them out in simple words.

In second standard your reward of promotion would only be given if you could read simple sentences and perform some basic addition and subtraction. Each reward was a reinforcement that would help you lead to your target behaviour of being an informed, skilled and a literate person.

(The author is a psychologist and a professor of psychology and social work. He can be contacted at

First Published: Dec 19, 2006 01:47 IST