Motivation and emotion/Book/2019/Rewards, punishments, and social cooperation

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Rewards, punishments, and social cooperation:
How do rewards and punishments facilitate social cooperation?


Humans use rewards and punishments as a way to influence or manipulate the responses and actions of others (Oliver, 1980). There are many ways in which we use rewards and punishments in everyday scenarios, whether this be a parent trying to teach their child, the police trying to enforce the law or a friend trying to bribe you into attending an event with them. Although rewards are usually seen as good and punishments as bad, motivational theory shows that there are forms of negative and positive reinforcement, as well as positive and negative punishment (McLeod, 2007)[say what?]. Rewards and punishments are often used to motivate and influence social outcomes (Andreoni et al., 2003). Motivational theories of psychology also show us that social factors like acceptance, affiliation, reciprocal friendships and love are all important to humans and highly motivate most individuals (Balliet et al., 2011). This chapter explores the ways that rewards and punishments facilitate social cooperation.

Focus questions
  1. What is social cooperation?
  2. What motivation theories are involved in this topic?
  3. How do rewards and punishments effect social cooperation?
  4. Are rewards or punishments more effective?

Social cooperation[edit]

Social cooperation is a form of prosocial behaviour displayed by very few species on earth[factual?]. It refers to the practice of individuals and a collective working on common goals and possible methods instead of working independently and in competition (Fehr & Gintis, 2007). Social cooperation is often used in the workplace and allows people to work together to achieve goals. Throughout behavioural sciences and evolutionary thinking the self-interest assumption dominated this field, however it has be shown through research that humans have a tendency to cooperate with each other, especially when treated fairly, and given the ability to punish non-cooperants (Fehr et al., 2002). Furthermore, cooperation can be shown in humans through kinship, repeated interactions and policing (Gardner, 2004). Ultimately, further research also suggests that cooperation based on reciprocal altruism makes up the core principles of human social life (Rilling et al., 2002).

A neural basis for social cooperation[edit]

Neural studies of brain activation show how cooperation is linked to things like motivation and rewards and punishments. A neural study in 2002, by James Riling and others, found that social cooperation was associated with consistent brain activation in brain areas that have been linked with reward processes and motivation (Rilling et al., 2002). These brain regions include the nucleus accumbens, the caudate nucleus, ventromedial frontal/orbitofrontal cortex, and the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (Rilling et al., 2002). Riling and his team further concluded through their research, that activation of this neural network showed positive reinforcement of reciprocal altruism, which motivated and helped individuals resist the temptation to be selfish and accept non-reciprocal favours (Rilling et al., 2002).

Importance of social cooperation[edit]

Social cooperation is important for humans as it allows us to work as a collective to achieve goals that might not be possible to achieve individually. In 2004, Phua and Rowlinson produced research looking into the importance of cooperation to construct project success (Phua & Rowlinson, 2004). They found that the having a cooperating team with a range of gender[grammar?], different skills and competencies, and long term relationships would predict greater success in projects (Phua & Rowlinson, 2004). This highlights the importance of social cooperation in the workplace where a lot of the time people are selfishly looking to enhance their personal careers. Social cooperation is also found to be important for people in the sense that it helps individuals affiliate with others and lets them feel included. As mentioned in the overview, social factors like acceptance, affiliation, reciprocal friendships and love are important to individuals and are shown to highly motivate (Balliet et al., 2011). David De Cremer, wrote an article about the importance of feeling included. The evidence from this article suggested that respect, and individuals who felt included, predicted motivation to contribute to group welfare through cooperation (De Cremer, 2002).

Motivation theory[edit]

It is clear that motivation plays a role in cooperation. This section looks into the psychological motivation theory that shows the underlying behavioural reasons of why people are motivated to cooperate.

Behaviourist theories:[edit]

A behaviourist theory (or, behaviourism ) is an approach to psychology which aims at understanding the behaviour of humans and other animals. These theories assume that all behaviours are either reflexes produced by stimuli in the environment, or consequences of learning through punishment and reward, together with an individual's motivation (McLeod, 2007). Cooperation is a behaviour which is often described through a behaviourist approach and the following theories give an idea of the relationship between rewards and punishments as a motive for social cooperation.

Incentive motivation[edit]

Incentive theory (incentive theory of motivation) is a motivation theory which describes reinforcement through incentive or motive to do something. Incentive such as compensation (reward) helps motivate individuals like employees, students, to achieve what they want in their field of practice. Incentive motivation uses reinforcers and reinforcements to describe its construct. The principle of a reinforcer and reinforcement describes the thing (punishment or reward) that follows an action, which gives the intent and motivation to perform the action and/or more frequently.

Incentive motivation theory can be used to describe the relationship between rewards and punishments, and social cooperation. We know that social cooperation is a predictor for success in work projects (Phua & Rowlinson, 2004). So, For example, if a company wishes for their projects to be successful, they provide a reward for teams that show excellent cooperation and a punishment for teams who show poor cooperation. This then gives individuals an incentive to socially cooperate with their team.

Operant and classical conditioning[edit]

Following on from incentive theory is the behavioural theories of operant and classical conditioning. Although they are similar to one another they have specific differences and they differ in nature. Operant conditioning (see Figure 1) deals with operants; intentional actions that have effects on the surrounding environment (McLeod, 2007). The strength of behaviour is modified by reinforcement (like reward) or punishment (McLeod, 2007). It is also a procedure that is used to create learning. In operant conditioning, stimuli present when a behaviour is rewarded or punished come to control that behaviour (McLeod, 2007). An example of of this is, someone learning not to touch hot things, or a child opening a wrapped gift to receive a present. This operant behaviour is said to be voluntary and learnt through experience.

Figure 1. Operant conditioning mind map with reinforcement and punishment examples.
Figure 2. Pavlov's dogs is a famous example of classical conditioning.

On the other had, classical conditioning refers to a learning procedure which pairs a strong stimulus with a previously neutral stimulus (Gormezano & Moore, 1966). A good and famous example of this is Pavlov's dogs experiment (see Figure 2). Classical conditioning also refers to the process of learning that results from the pairing of the two stimulus (Gormezano & Moore, 1966). Through the pairing, a response is elicited and is usually similar to the response elicited by the strong stimulus (e.g. the salivation of the dog when the strong stimulus of meat is presented) (Gormezano & Moore, 1966). An example of classical conditioning in humans is a conditioned nausea response to the sight or smell of a particular food or object, maybe due to a previous bad experience or reaction.

Although both operant and classical conditioning help explain certain behaviours and motives for humans, only operant conditioning can be applied to the reasons why reward and punishments facilitate social cooperation. Through operant conditioning there are clear links to rewards and punishments as a means to motivate. As seen in figure 1, there are two branches in operant conditioning. The first is reinforcement, which extends to positive and negative reinforcement, and this can be linked to reward. The other is punishment, which is also extends to positive and negative, and this obviously can be linked to the type of punishment that is being discussed in this page. So it is clear that through the operant conditioning theory, either reinforcement of punishment can facilitate the motivation for a response, and for the sake of this page, social cooperation.

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Mini quiz: Motivation theory

1 Learning through trial and error is called?

Classical conditioning
Operant conditioning
Incentive conditioning
Behaviourist conditioning

2 Classical conditioning pairs behaviour and response, while operant conditioning pairs two stimuli.


3 Studying for an exam to avoid failure is an example of

Positive reinforcement
Negative reinforcement
Neutral reinforcement

Rewards and social cooperation[edit]

A reward is a thing[vague] given in recognition of service, achievement or effort. Humans use rewards to motivate and create a goal to work towards. As mentioned before, social cooperation in humans is very desirable in everyday life and especially in the workplace (Phua & Rowlinson, 2004). Therefore in the instance that social cooperation is desired, it makes sense that people would use rewards to motivate or encourage an individual or a collection of individuals to participate in social cooperation. Literature shows that when rewards are given repetitively this can make the action habit (Ruff & Fehr, 2014). Likewise immediate rewards give more of an incentive than rewards received at later times (Balliet et al., 2011). Daniel Balliet and others conducted a meta-analysis on rewards, punishments and cooperation (Balliet et al., 2011). They found that rewards had a medium-sized, positive effect of cooperation (Balliet et al., 2011). Furthermore they concluded that rewards were a sufficient way a facilitating cooperation (Balliet et al., 2011) and therefore social cooperation. Andreoni and others found that after reviewing the evidence one might expect less cooperation in societies where good behavior is rewarded than in those where poor behavior is punished (Andreoni et al., 2003). This further establishes rewards as a good means to facilitate social cooperation.

Drawing back to motivation theory, it is clear that rewards are an effective means for motivation. Positive reinforcement in operant conditioning is essentially a reward. Operant conditioning theory suggests that positive reinforcement (or rewards) through adding a appetitive stimulus following correct behaviour, leads to motivation and incentive to keep performing the desired action. Simply put, this means that those who wish to achieve social cooperation could do so by providing a reward for those who follow the desired behaviour.


Real-world use of reward to facilitate social cooperation:

Mark is the CEO of a large scale air conditioning production company. At the end of every year he holds an annual meeting with the company teams that work across the country, in order to float new ideas about marketing etc. Mark knows that in order for the company to be successful he needs each team to contribute their ideas through team cooperation. As an incentive for teams to produce good ideas, Mark gives a large bonus to the team that displays the best ideas and best team cooperation.

The advantages and disadvantages of using rewards
Advantages Disadvantages
Leads to motivation and incentive if the reward is valued by the individual Is not effective if the reward has no value to the individual
Fosters a good relationship between provider and recipient Is not effective if the individual is internally motivated
Can be used repetitively to induce habit Does not encourage self motivation (the individual only is motivated to act out of reward)
Costly and resource demanding for the supplier

Punishments and social cooperation[edit]

A punishment is an infliction or imposition of a penalty, with an undesirable or unpleasant outcome, on a group or individual. Punishments are often given by authorities and used to deter groups or individuals from taking part in action which is undesired or unaccepted. Like rewards, punishments are used by humans as a way to motivate, however the fundamental motivation of reward and punishment differ. Dominic Johnson and J. Bering wrote an article regarding punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation (Johnson & Bering, 2006) . This article suggested that ancestral cooperation was governed by the fear of supernatural punishment (religious god punishment) (Johnson & Bering, 2006). However in this day and age, this type of fear of punishment doesn't have the amplitude as it did in history. In 2004, Andy Gardner and Stuart West wrote an article on cooperation and punishment, finding that punishment by authority created good incentive for individuals to cooperate (Gardner, 2004). However they also found that punishing behaviour is often costly for the punisher (Gardner, 2004).

In operant conditioning, punishment has be shown to decrease behaviour. However the objective of this page is to show how punishment can facilitate social cooperation, not decrease the behaviour. Therefore analysis of negative reinforcement would be more beneficial (Helms, 2016). Negative reinforcement is a response or behaviour that is strengthened by stopping, removing or avoiding a negative outcome (Helms, 2016). To explain this in the context of punishments facilitating social cooperation, an individual would display social cooperation in order to avoid punishment. Therefore punishment can be used as a motivator or incentive for social cooperation.


Real-world use of punishment to facilitate social cooperation:

Emma is a psychology student at university. She is required to complete a group assessment task as part of her unit. The group schedules weekly meetings to work on the project however Emma does not attend. The group contact Emma and tell her that they will punish her if she does not begin to attend the meetings. Her punishment is that they will give her low scores for the peer evaluation section of the assessment in hopes that it will make her cooperate.

The advantages and disadvantages of using punishments
Advantages Disadvantages
Can be an effective method for incentive and motivation (depending on the individual case) Creates poor relationship between punished and punisher
Cost effective The punishment does not offer information about more appropriate or desired behaviours
Provides a learning opportunity Can lead to unintended and undesirable consequences (e.g. A parent spanking their child, increases risk to antisocial behaviour and aggressiveness)

Are rewards or punishments better for social cooperation?[edit]

Throughout the literature there has been evidence to suggest that both rewards and punishments can facilitate social cooperation. While both rewards and punishments have advantages they also display disadvantages. Pamela Oliver's findings agree with this, stating in his article that rewards and punishments are similar in their effects on the recipient's decision but fundamentally different for the person supplying them (Oliver, 1980). Oliver raises a good point, implying that the individual or group who supplies the reward or punishment would experience different negative effects due to the reward or punishment being dealt (Oliver, 1980). Likewise literature by Daniel Balliet and others claim that the effectiveness of incentives was stronger when the incentives were costly to administer, compared to free (Balliet et al., 2011). This further establishes the potential predicament of the supplier of reward or punishment, as opposed to the recipient.

It is also hard to compare and measure the effect of both reward and punishment, because the effective of the reward or punishment can change between individuals; some individuals might value rewards more than others, and some might be worried about punishments more than others. Based on this it would be naive to claim one or the other as being superior to facilitate social cooperation.


Social cooperation is the practice of individuals and a collective working on common goals and possible methods instead of working independently and in competition. Social cooperation is very important as it allows us to work as a collective to achieve goals that might not be possible to achieve individually. Rewards and punishments are used by humans to provide motivation and incentives for actions and responses, like social cooperation. Literature suggests that the use of rewards and punishments help facilitate behavior like social cooperation. Furthermore, psychological motivational theory provides a guide and an approach to human behaviour through motivation and incentive. Operant conditioning and incentive motivation theory fundamentally show that rewards and punishments govern some of our actions and can be used to facilitate learning and encourage things like social cooperation. While both rewards and punishments display advantages and disadvantages, it is not clear which provides a better facilitation of social cooperation. This is because the value of rewards and punishments differ between cases and individuals, and also have implications on the supplier. Social cooperation is highly recommended, especially in the workplace. However, due to the disadvantages that could occur through the use of rewards and punishments to facilitate this, care and planning of outcomes must be processed before choosing which to use. Through motivational theory and evidence supported by literature, it is concluded that both rewards and punishments have a positive effect on the facilitation of social cooperation. Future research should further look into the consequences of using rewards and punishments, and provide more knowledge of when to use each to their best effect.

See also[edit]


Andreoni, J., Harbaugh, W. and Vesterlund, L. (2003). The Carrot or the Stick: Rewards, Punishments and Cooperation. SSRN Electronic Journal.

Balliet, Daniel; Mulder, Laetitia B.; and Van Lange, Paul A. M.. Reward, Punishment, and Cooperation: A Meta-Analysis. (2011). Psychological Bulletin. 137, (4), 594-615. Research Collection School of Social Sciences. Available at:

De Cremer, D. (2002). Respect and cooperation in social dilemmas: The importance of feeling included. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 28(10), 1335-1341.

Fehr, E., Fischbacher, U., & Gächter, S. (2002). Strong reciprocity, human cooperation, and the enforcement of social norms. Human nature, 13(1), 1-25.

Fehr, E., & Gintis, H. (2007). Human motivation and social cooperation: Experimental and analytical foundations. Annu. Rev. Sociol., 33, 43-64.

Gardner, A., & West, S. A. (2004). Cooperation and punishment, especially in humans. The American Naturalist, 164(6), 753-764.

Gormezano, I., & Moore, J. W. (1966). Classical conditioning. Experimental methods and instrumentation in psychology, 1, 385-420.

Helms, Marilyn M. (2006) Reinforcement Theory. Encyclopedia of Management. (ed.) Retrieved January 26, 2011, from:

Johnson, D., & Bering, J. (2006). Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary psychology, 4(1), 147470490600400119.

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Bf skinner: Operant conditioning. Retrieved September, 9, 2009.Oliver, P. (1980). Rewards and Punishments as Selective Incentives for Collective Action: Theoretical Investigations. American Journal of Sociology, 85(6), pp.1356-1375.

Phua, F. T., & Rowlinson, S. (2004). How important is cooperation to construction project success? A grounded empirical quantification. Engineering, Construction and Architectural Management, 11(1), 45-54.

Rilling, J. K., Gutman, D. A., Zeh, T. R., Pagnoni, G., Berns, G. S., & Kilts, C. D. (2002). A neural basis for social cooperation. Neuron, 35(2), 395-405.

Ruff, C. C., & Fehr, E. (2014). The neurobiology of rewards and values in social decision making. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 15(8), 549.

External links[edit]