How do Rewards and Consequences Work?


There is no doubt that the rewards and consequences that come from our actions affect the way we behave. Different fields of academic research have studied how exactly rewards and consequences affect behavior over time. Here are a couple of theories to consider:

“Pain and pleasure govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”

– Jeremy Bentham

Reward Motivation

Modern neuroscience suggests that rewards may be more effective than punishments at motivating people to act in a certain way. Conversely, for deterring people from acting a certain way, the opposite is true – punishment is more effective than praise. Motivate the behavior we want and demotivate the behavior we don’t want. Tali Sharot, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience explains that the reason for this has to do with the way our brains have evolved.


In order to get a reward or something we desire in life, we normally need to take some action towards it – to approach the object of our desire or work for the promotion we seek. When we expect something good, our brain releases dopamine which serves to motivate us to act. To avoid unpleasant things in life such as danger, cold, enemies, etc., our brains have learned that we usually just need to stay where we are and not move towards the thing we do not want. When we expect something bad is going to happen, our brain sends signals which inhibit action and in severe cases, may cause us to freeze completely.

Reward Proximity

A study by Kaitlin Woolley, an assistant professor of marketing at Cornell University, showed that we are more motivated by the proximity of a reward (how soon we get it) than the size of the reward. People who were offered an immediate bonus on the completion of a task were not only more likely to stick at it and perform well, they were even more motivated to continue with the task after the bonus was given than others. Those who were offered a bigger bonus but with a month’s delay showed less motivation to complete and continue with the activity.

Loss Aversion

On the other hand, economists argue that we are more motivated under the threat of a loss (loss aversion) than the promise of a gain. John List conducted a study with 150 teachers in which one group was given a bonus and told that if a target was not reached, it would be revoked, whereas the other group was promised a bonus at the end of the term if they reached a target. The group that was threatened with the loss of the money they had already received performed 7% better than the group that had been promised a future bonus.





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