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Punishment, Like Reward, Enhances Decision-Making Skills

Update Date: Mar 13, 2013 03:18 PM EDT

Most of us prefer the carrot to the stick, but unfortunately, a new study has once again confirmed that punishment can work just as well as reward for improving performance. 

New findings, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, reveals that punishment enhances performance like monetary reward.

Researchers from the University of Nottingham wanted to look at how the potential for, and severity of, anticipated punishment influences the efficiency with which people make decisions using ambiguous sensory information.

In the study, participants were asked to perform a simple perceptual task.  They needed to judge whether a blurred shape behind a rainy window is a person or something else.

If participants answered incorrectly, they were punished with monetary penalties. During these perceptual tasks, researchers measured the participants' brain activity in response to different amounts of monetary punishment using EEG machine, which detects and amplifies brain signals from the surface of the scalp.

The study revealed that participants' performance increased systematically as the amount of punishment increased, suggesting that punishment acts as a performance booster in a similar way to monetary reward.

Lead researcher Marios Philiastide and his team found that punishment induced multiple and distinct brain activations throughout different areas of the brain. Most importantly, after analyzing the timing of these activations, researchers found that punishment does not affect the way in which the brain processes the sensory evidence.  Instead punishment affects the brains decision maker responsible for decoding sensory information at a later stage in the decision-making process.

Scientists found that participants who showed the greatest improvement in performance also exhibited the biggest changes in brain activity.  Scientists said this finding is important because it provides a potential route to research differences between individuals and their personality traits in order to characterize why some may respond better to reward and punishment than others.

Researchers said the latest study is important because understanding of how punishment influences decision-making could lead to useful information on how to use incentive-based motivation to encourage certain behavior. The latest study could also help diagnose neural development disorders characterized by abnormalities in decision-making processes, according to researchers.

"This work reveals important new information about how the brain functions that could lead to new methods of diagnosing neural development disorders such as autism, ADHD and personality disorders, where decision-making processes have been shown to be compromised," Philiastide said in a statement.

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