Study Investigates If Kids Respond Better to Punishments or Rewards

To change a child's behavior, should you use a reward or a punishment?

child discipline methods
When you need to discpline your preschooler, what works better: a punishment or a reward?. Darrin Klimek

When your preschooler misbehaves, what do you do? Put him in a time-out? A spanking? Maybe a mix of discipline techniques? What if the behavior is more long-term, like regular temper tantrums or tattletaling? Maybe you are considering a reward system to help keep your preschooler on the right track. Before you come up with any discipline plan, you might want to take a look at a new study that answered the question, What is more effective, the carrot or the stick?

The experiment, which took place at Washington University in St. Louis, took a look at how college students change their behavior based on whether they receive a punishment or a reward. The study found that punishments had a "measured impact two to three times greater than gains — or rewards."

“Regarding teaching strategies, our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback at modifying behavior," said Dr. Jan Kubanek, lead author of the study. "Our study showed that such feedback does not have to be harsh, since it appears that we tend to react in the same manner to any amount of negative feedback. From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to avoid punishments or dangerous situations. Rewards, on the other hand, have less of a life-threatening impact.”

In the simple experiment, one group of students listened to noises and had to tell the researchers if they heard a clicking in their left or right ear.

Another group of students saw flashes of light and told researchers if they saw more flashes on the left or right side. If the student got the answer correct, they would get a random token for anywhere from $.05 to $.25. But if they got the answer incorrect, a token was taken away.

Researchers found that when a student was given a reward, they usually repeated the previous choice.

But if they got the answer wrong, they always avoided the previous choice. And those instincts got stronger as the reward or punishment was increased.

“Objectively, you’d think that winning 25 cents would have the same magnitude of effect as losing 25 cents, but that’s not what we find,” said Kubanek, who is a postdoctoral research associate in anatomy and neurobiology at Washington University School of Medicine.

Based on their results, the researchers concluded that negative feedback is often a stronger factor in decision making than positive feedback, reasoning that punishment may "help students avoid making the same mistake again."

So what does this mean when it comes to disciplining your preschooler? Maybe nothing, depending on if you are happy with your current mix of discipline methods. If what you are doing isn't working however, perhaps a change is in order -- and that even means switching to a positive-based method if a negative-based one doesn't seem to be effective. If you are really struggling, reach out to your child's preschool teacher or pediatrician for their take and advice.

No matter which method you employ however, the important thing is to be calm and consistent. Don't be afraid to talk to your preschooler about what types of behaviors you like and don't like. As kids get older, their reasoning skills increase, as does their ability to understand more.

Eighty-eight students were involved in the study. More information can be found online in the journal Cognition.

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