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Here’s Why Our Brains Respond to Positive Reinforcement Over Punishment

What is the best way to change human behavior? Many people in western society believe it takes a firm hand. Programs like “tough love” became buzzwords in the latter half of the last century, and many people still cling to this method, especially given American society’s emphasis on personal responsibility.

However, psychology and neuroscience take umbrage with this approach because the evidence shows it simply isn’t effective. While some scenarios like violent crime demand strict deterrents, such practices are ineffective in altering the behavior that drives such extremes.

The preponderance of the evidence suggests that rewarding good behavior works better than condemning the undesirable, especially at certain developmental stages. Here’s why our brains respond to positive reinforcement over punishment.

What’s the Difference Between Punishment and Reinforcement?

Imagine this: you tell your child they can play video games after they complete their chores. They refuse to do the dishes; you keep the console hidden in your bedroom. Are you punishing them or providing reinforcement?

It helps to understand the difference. Both punishment and reinforcement can be positive or negative. The key difference? Reinforcement seeks to increase desired behavior, while punishment strives to eliminate undesirable actions – without teaching additional lessons.

Another way to think of it is that reinforcement entails a degree of free will that punishment does not. In the above game console example, the child can earn the privilege of video gaming by completing the requisite actions. Punishment would be taking the console away mid-game and demanding your child wash the dishes right now – then refusing to return it.

Which approach seems more fair and reasonable? The latter method may get you the desired results but leave your child sullen and bitter.

Punishment Can Backfire

Think back to the last time you received a punishment that you felt was unfairly harsh. How did you react? Did you pause, reflect on your behavior, and think, “Hmm. I should try to do better next time?” Or did you simmer with resentment? Even if you changed your behavior to avoid future consequences, you probably snuck in workarounds and looked for a way out of that situation or relationship as soon as possible.

The same principle applies when punishing others, especially children. Punishment may stop unwanted behavior – at least while you’re paying attention – but it doesn’t create the chance to learn positive replacement skills your little one can apply to future situations. It condemns instead of teaches. Furthermore, it can leave people feeling excluded, breeding resentment, fear, or indifference to the person doling out the consequences.

Positive Reinforcement Requires Less Mental Energy to Process

There’s wisdom in the saying that mistakes are the greatest teachers. However, it takes considerable mental energy to reflect on your behavior, evaluate what went wrong, and decide how you want to proceed in the future.

Science suggests that children’s brains don’t develop this ability until the age of 12 or so, explaining why positive reinforcement works much better than punishment at this developmental stage.

However, it takes next to no mental energy to process an attaboy. When something you do brings a positive result, sparking joy or making you feel proud, your instinctive urge is to repeat the behavior to reap similar good vibes. Your brain releases massive amounts of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with rewards and happy feelings.

Conversely, punishment activates your fight-or-flight system, especially if you associate the consequences with danger. For example, children exposed to corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety disorders thanks to this system, remaining in a continual state of hyperarousal.

Reinforcement Spurs You to Action

Remember, punishment only seeks to extinguish an undesirable behavior, not replace it with a new skill. Roughly grabbing your child’s hand before they can touch a hot burner is such an example. You don’t necessarily want to teach them how to use the stove safely at that point – you only want to prevent injury.

However, relying on punishment for behavioral modification can leave your child wondering what they are allowed to do. They may hesitate to take risks, and this anxiety can plague them throughout life, preventing them from chasing their dreams. At worst, they may become sullen, depressed, and withdrawn.

Conversely, positive reinforcement tells your child to keep trying. Rewarding minor successes inspire them to move on to the next milestone. Remember, receiving praise and rewards stimulates your neurons to produce more dopamine, a pleasure chemical. This neurotransmitter also plays a crucial role in addiction, but you can encourage your child to seek the natural high that comes with doing the right thing.

Reinforcement Inspires Choice and Agency

What is agency? This sense is crucial to overall mental health. It refers to the core belief that your actions can create positive change in your environment. People who lack a strong sense of agency feel like victims of circumstance and may struggle with depression and anxiety about a future over which they fear they have no control.

Positive reinforcement helps foster a sense of agency by allowing your child to draw a direct correlation between their behavior and the desired outcome. Even negative reinforcement can have a similar effect. Remember the chores and video games example? Failure to wash the dishes results in no access to the console – but the child is free to change the outcome by picking up the dishrag and getting to work.

Punishment can leave children feeling powerless, especially if they’re too young to draw the cognitive distinction between their behavior and the unwanted consequences. Inconsistent penalties are even worse; they can feel capricious and leave your child believing nothing they do can prevent the next bad thing from occurring.

It’s Less Stressful to Reinforce Desirable Behavior Than to Punish

Relationships involve a dynamic between two people. While your child might view you as an all-powerful dictator, doling out punishment takes a toll on you both. What parent hasn’t felt regret, wondering if they were a bit too harsh on their little one the night before?

Giving positive reinforcement feels good – to you and your child. Science shows that performing kind acts for others makes your brain produce a ton of feel-good neurotransmitters that improve your mood. You have more fun with your little one when you feel better, strengthening your bond.

Our Brains Respond Better to Positive Reinforcement

“Tough love” may not be the best course for long-term behavioral modification. Science shows that a little praise goes farther than harsh admonitions, especially in children.

Understanding why our brains respond to positive reinforcement over punishment can help you make better parenting decisions. You’ll raise the next generation with the right life skills to effect desirable behavioral change.

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