A new study shows that punishment can enhance performance in the same way as a monetary reward.
“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,” said Marios Philiastides, Ph.D., of the University of Nottingham, who led the research.
The researchers set out to discover how the way we make decisions based on ambiguous sensory information — such as visual or auditory cues — is affected by anticipated punishment.
To do this, they asked study participants to perform a simple perceptual task: Judge whether a blurred shape behind a rainy window is a person or something else.
They punished incorrect decisions by imposing monetary penalties. At the same time, they measured the participants’ brain activity in response to different amounts of monetary punishment.
Brain activity was recorded using an EEG machine that detects and amplifies brain signals from the surface of the scalp through a set of small electrodes embedded in a cap fitted on the head.
The researchers found that performance increased systematically as the amount of punishment increased. They said this suggests that punishment acts as a performance enhancer in a similar way to a monetary reward.
The researchers also identified brain activation brought on by the punishment and distributed throughout different areas of the brain.
“Crucially, the timing of these activations confirmed that the punishment does not influence the way in which the brain processes the sensory evidence, but does have an impact on the brain’s decision maker responsible for decoding sensory information at a later stage in the decision-making process,” the researchers said in the study, which was published in the Journal of Neuroscience.
The researchers also discovered that the participants who showed the greatest improvements in performance also showed the biggest changes in brain activity.
They said that is a key finding, as it provides a potential route to study differences between individuals and their personality traits to help find out why some people respond better to reward and punishment than others.
A more thorough understanding how punishment impacts decision-making, and how we make choices, could help clarify incentive-based motivation to encourage certain behavior, the researchers concluded.
Source: University of Nottingham