• Question: Is there any evidence that shows a link between the type of rewards vs their impact. E.G do tangible rewards have more of an impact than verbal/visual praise/gaining points etc

    Asked by vmarshall to Yana, Victoria, Richard, Mike, Lucía, Iroise, Gaia on 28 Feb 2018.
    • Photo: Mike Hobbiss

      Mike Hobbiss answered on 28 Feb 2018:

      It’s an interesting question. I’m not aware of any research that has separated things in that way. Rewards often get separated into intrinsic and extrinsic (i.e. between personal satisfaction and goal attainment and external reward). Both of these are important in their own way. Extrinsic rewards can be very motivating for simple tasks, but can impair performance of very complex tasks. Whether extrinsic rewards might be more powerful if they are tangible compared to things like praise or a sticker, however, I don’t know. I would imagine that, all things being equal (the student’s attitude towards the reward and the scale of the reward etc) it probably wouldn’t make a difference, but it would be an interesting thing to test.

    • Photo: Richard Churches

      Richard Churches answered on 16 Mar 2018:

      Motivation is the feature of human cognition that makes the difference between considering a behaviour and actually carrying it out. For example, you can think all day about taking an action but without a sense of motivation you will not do it. In psychology, any goal to which we can direct behaviour we refer to as an incentive, and anything that increases the likelihood of behaving in a particular way we refer to as a reinforcer. Interestingly, reinforcers can be things we seek to gain (positive reinforcers) or things we seek to lose (negative reinforcers). An example of a positive reinforcer (i.e. something we want to gain) could be a high grade or a monetary reward, and receiving one of these will increase the chances of us repeating the behaviour that led to it. By contrast, a negative reinforcer (i.e. something we seek to lose) could be avoiding boredom because boredom is unpleasant to us. So an activity that stops us being bored may be a negative reinforcer. While reinforcers always increase the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated, punishments decrease it. Like reinforcers, punishments can be about gaining something (positive punishment) or losing something (negative punishment). A positive punishment could be illustrated by a teacher telling someone off or giving them a detention. By contrast, a negative punishment is removing something desirable, such as house points. Neuroscientists have now established that a particular neurotransmitter, acting in specific brain regions, is critical for motivation. The neurotransmitter in question is called dopamine and its critical actions for motivation are in a pathway called the mesolimbic pathway. Neuroscientists have discovered that levels of dopamine in the synapse increase when a positive reinforcer is received and that the levels vary depending on whether the reinforcer was expected or not (Schultz, 2016a). This is demonstrated by the different responses to unexpected and expected reinforcement. When an unexpected reinforcer occurs, dopamine levels increase, but when an expected reinforcer is delivered there is no change in dopamine levels. While that on its own is interesting, the researchers went on to show that different levels of expectancy could have the biggest effects on dopamine levels in the brain – indicating that dopamine neurons are most active in risky situations and, therefore, that such situations may be the most motivating. Careful examination of this dopamine response has revealed that it is affected by a number of stimulus characteristics (Schultz, 2016b). These include physical intensity, novelty and salience. These findings suggest that introducing some uncertainty into the classroom environment could actually be beneficial. This idea is quite at odds with current educational practice where learners can be certain that if they have got something correct they will be rewarded, and where effort is made to ensure that the praise and reward are attributed on a fair basis. Researchers, including Professor Paul Howard-Jones, are now investigating how teachers can incorporate risk into the classroom.

      Schultz, W. (2016a) ‘Dopamine reward prediction error coding’. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 18(1), 23–32.

      Schultz, W. (2016b) ‘Dopamine reward prediction-error signalling: a two-component response’. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 17(3), 183–195.


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