Naga Chokkanathan

Why Not? – Praise, Or Punish?

Posted on: April 16, 2010

Daniel Kahneman

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Praise, Or Punishment – What works?

It’s a classic puzzle. No one has a right (and fully justifiable) answer to it.

Many scientists have tried to test this using animals, and sometimes humans too. Their conclusion is, our brains are wired in such a way that Praise works better than Punishment. This means, if we get a pat on the back for a good job, we tend to keep that reputation intact by doing a similar (or better) job next time and so on.

But, when Daniel Kahneman (who went on to win a Nobel prize for Economics in 2002) tried explaining this to a team of Israeli flight instructors, they didn’t agree with him. They felt, ‘When we praise a trainee (student) for some good work, it goes above their head and next time invariably they make a mistake or do a poor job. But scolding works perfectly, If someone does a bad landing, we shout at them and immediately we see great improvement in their behavior / output.’

Daniel Kahneman was puzzled. He couldn’t imagine why his theory fails in this case. Hence, he decided to investigate.

Next many months, he did research using lots of data, observed students who are either praised or scolded, and marked their reactions, future behavior. At the end of this project, he came-up with a very interesting theory.

Whatever may be our job, Each one of us have an average performance score. For you this score may be 6, and for me it may be 4. Over a period of time, with experience and expertise we may increase this average score, but it happens over a period of time, slowly.

Now, imagine a student’s average is 6. He may get lucky and score a 9.5 on one day, But its not his usual performance.

Similarly, same student may find an unlucky day, and scores just 2.5, This doesn’t mean his average drops. On a given day, very good or very bad performance is likely for anyone – Even a Sachin Tendulkar scores 0 in one match and 100+ in another, but his average stays in 40s.

Applying the same logic for those flight school students, Let us assume a student does a bad landing, Means he is below his average. What does the instructor do? Scolding, of course!

Next time, he does a proper landing, This is sure an improvement from the earlier bad landing. Right?

But, this improvement didn’t happen because of that ‘scolding’. That student is just returning back to his average, that’s all. Even without the instructor shouting at him, the same would have happened.

Same way, when you praise a student for exceptionally good performance, he or she can’t stay there forever. Definitely he / she will return to their average performance the next time, which may look like praise has done damage to his / her performance. But the reality is, it’s all a game of averages.

So, returning to the original question. Should we praise, or punish?

The truth is, either of them won’t bring you great results immediately. Improving one’s average is a very slow process and on that path, praises will help a lot more than punishments.



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