Which Leads to More Success, Reward or Encouragement?

We are a society that puts a huge emphasis on rewards, and a school of psychology is based on it. In behavioral psychology, an American invention, there are two ways to stimulate a response from someone, either reward them or punish them. This two-way mechanism works with lower animals - dog and horse trainers, for example, use food treats to reinforce the behavior they want - so it should work with humans, or so the logic goes. If you want a certain behavior out of prisoners, for example, behaviorists advise giving privileges as a reward for obeying the rules and punishment for disobeying them.

The problem is that human behavior isn't that simple, because we have inner lives. A dog or horse will be content with a steady supply of food and a warm place to live. Those things are barely the minimum for meeting human needs. There is another duality besides reward-punishment that plays a huge part in the career arc of every successful person: encouragement-discouragement.

To be encouraged means literally to acquire courage, while to be discouraged is to give in to fear. Soldiers need courage to charge into battle, and without it, they won't. Every person conceals a level of fear and anxiety inside, however, and in order to meet life's challenges and crises, we all have to discover how much courage we have. This is a prime example of why reward-punishment is inadequate on its own. To face your fears isn't a pleasant experience that anyone would consider a reward - it's much closer to being a punishment. Yet in the long run, many accomplishments in life come our way only if we overcome fear and acquire courage.

These issues come up as early as grade school, where teachers traditionally offer rewards, in the form of gold stars, high grades, and personal praise. The drawbacks of this approach have been noticed in recent years, and they apply to adults as well.

The negatives of rewards as an incentive:

  • It divides people into winners and losers.
  • The losers are under-motivated.
  • Losers resent winners, leading to passive aggression and non-cooperation.
  • The winners can become pampered, egotistical, and selfish.
  • Bonds between people are frayed; no sense of "us" as a community.
  • External rewards do nothing for inner needs such as acceptance and belonging.
  • Competitiveness becomes exaggerated, leading to hostility and vicious rivalry.

The tough-minded may shrug off these drawbacks, and if you think that success is only about external rewards and winning, you may be tempted to as well. But reward-punishment is devoid of moral and ethical values, a huge lack when it comes to solving global challenges - witness the lack of international cooperation over climate change, as each rich country continues to gobble up rewards while poor countries aspire to do the same. The result is that all of the winners will wind up losing if our planet is suffocated.

The duality of encouragement-discouragement has its advantages, although they don't come to mind as easily as earning a reward in terms of money and promotion.

The advantages of encouragement as an incentive:

  • It develops a stronger sense of self.
  • People feel included and accepted.
  • The group moves forward for the benefit of everyone.
  • Fear of failure is reduced.
  • People feel that they are not alone in facing a crisis.
  • A stronger sense of self diminishes anxiety.
  • Resilience in the face of challenges is able to grow.
  • Group productivity is increased.

These are not "soft" qualities. The band of brothers mentality that develops among soldiers embraces everything on this list. From the outside, battle looks so horrifying that non-combatants don't realize how much it means for a soldier to acquire courage and bonding with fellow soldiers. But I am not promoting a battlefield outlook. Vast areas of human society, including all of Asia, emphasize the value of identifying with a group in order to reach a goal.

For decades Americans have considered our ways superior to everyone else's, but the landscape has changed. Anxiety over unemployment, the burden of personal debt, stagnating wages, and the widening gap between the very rich and everyone else, the loss of pension plans and medical benefits - these factors have increased people's anxieties. The only ray of hope with global problems like terrorism and climate change is to examine what it takes to find renewed courage. The old competitive-capitalist model can't do it, not for individuals or for an entire planet.

Deepak Chopra, MD - Chopra Foundation 2013