Rewards & Punishment System to Improve Ethical Conduct

by Jonathan Vankin
Rewards and punishments work for dogs, but can they improve human conduct?

Rewards and punishments work for dogs, but can they improve human conduct?

Pain and pleasure are the primary motivators of all human action. But is the promise of reward or punishment enough to cause people to act in a moral and ethical fashion? Why people act ethically or not has puzzled philosophers and scientists alike. Not all ethical behavior produces obvious pleasure, but people will act ethically anyway. And when ethics are lacking, a system of reward and punishment alone may not be enough to improve human conduct.

Behavioral Conditioning

In the 20th century, as psychologists explored the mysterious depths of the human mind, one school of psychology put aside the mind and began focusing on behavior. The father of behaviorism, B.F. Skinner, emerged in the 1950's with a theory of “operant conditioning.” Behavior could be changed, he said, by “reinforcement.” Reinforcers are rewards used to create a repetition of a desired behavior. “Punishers” are used to extinguish unwanted behaviors. Skinner’s theory was that people learned behavior based on the rewards and punishments they received throughout life.

Relativity of Reward

The reward-punishment model isn’t as straightforward as it seems. One person’s reward might be another’s punishment. Improving a person’s ethical conduct means you have to know what that person considers to be a “reward.” To further complicate matters, the phenomenon of “too much of a good thing” applies. Pleasure has a threshold, neuroscientists have discovered. Too much positive reinforcement reduces the capacity to feel pleasure, diminishing the effectiveness of rewards, as a 2006 study at Erasmus University in the Netherlands found. Moreover, the effectiveness of rewards and punishment can differ by age. Another study reported in the "Journal of Neuroscience" in 2008 found that while young children will change behavior in response to a reward, older children and young adults respond better to punishments.

Conditioning Moral Development

Can children learn to be moral simply through reward and punishment? Psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg says no. Kohlberg identified three stages of human moral development. The first “preconventional" or egocentric stage may be best suited to the use of reward and punishment, since a child makes moral decisions based on “what’s in it for me.” But the next two stages, "conventional" and "post-conventional," require an individual to figure out what’s good over the long-term and what benefits society as a whole. In the more advanced stages of moral development, people also evaluate the ethical standards of the culture in which they live. A system that simply rewards good behavior and punishes bad has little to say about those broader moral considerations. In fact, the overuse of the reward-punishment approach during the preconventional phase can stunt a person’s moral growth over the long-term.

Behavorism and Ethics

Business experts see a role for reward and punishment in promoting ethical conduct in the workplace. For example, such techniques as “spot rewards,” unexpected monetary bonuses for outstanding ethical conduct, can be effective. However, the allocation of rewards and punishments must be perceived as equitable to be effective, and positive reinforcement is preferable to punishment. According to author and behavioral scientist Charles D. Kerns, punishment may produce compliance with ethical guidelines, but positive reinforcement of ethical behavior "produces a work culture that becomes reinforcing in itself."

About the Author

Jonathan Vankin is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He has written for such publications as "The New York Times Magazine," "Wired" and Salon, covering technology, arts, sports, music and politics. Vankin is also the author of three nonfiction books and several graphic novels.

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