Why Punishment is Better than Praise

Just had a bit of an ‘of course’ moment:

I had the most satisfying Eureka experience of my career while attempting to teach flight instructors that praise is more effective than punishment for promoting skill-learning. When I had finished my enthusiastic speech, one of the most seasoned instructors in the audience raised his hand and made his own short speech, which began by conceding that positive reinforcement might be good for the birds, but went on to deny that it was optimal for flight cadets. He said, “On many occasions I have praised flight cadets for clean execution of some aerobatic maneuver, and in general when they try it again, they do worse. On the other hand, I have often screamed at cadets for bad execution, and in general they do better the next time. So please don’t tell us that reinforcement works and punishment does not, because the opposite is the case.” This was a joyous moment, in which I understood an important truth about the world: because we tend to reward others when they do well and punish them when they do badly, and because there is regression to the mean, it is part of the human condition that we are statistically punished for rewarding others and rewarded for punishing them.

— Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laureate.

From his autobiography on the nobel prize site.

Regression to the mean means that, you are mostly likely to do something at an average level (average for you). So if you’ve just done amazingly well, your next attempt is overwhelmingly likely to be worse. If you just failed horribly, chances are you’ll do better next time.


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5 responses to “Why Punishment is Better than Praise

  1. I suppose there are different emotional rewards or memories made when giving punishments vs giving rewards too.

    This reminded me of my behaviorist days within education. This post puts so many memories into perspective.Thanks for the ah-ha moment, Ian!

  2. Ian

    Thanks, sorry for not responding sooner.

  3. Pingback: Farset Labs » Welcome a New Director of Farset Labs and Some Parting Thoughts from an Old One

  4. rory

    I don’t know if you still read this blog, but based on the title of your post, I think you are misunderstanding Kahneman’s point. You also left this out:

    “I immediately arranged a demonstration in which each participant tossed two coins at a target behind his back, without any feedback. We measured the distances from the target and could see that those who had done best the first time had mostly deteriorated on their second try, and vice versa. But I knew that this demonstration would not undo the effects of lifelong exposure to a perverse contingency.”

  5. Ian

    Without being clear what you think my misunderstanding is, it is hard to know if you’ve understood something I’ve missed (which is totally possible, I freely concede).

    The quote you give seems to match with the quotation I included.

    The title of my post isn’t my claim, but is the claim that Kahneman is refuting in his TED talk, which I think I made clear in my post, at least I hoped so, sorry if I was ambiguous.

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