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Carrot or the Stick?

Estimated Lesson Time: 4 minutes

There is an old analogy for positive vs. negative reinforcement that refers to how people “motivate” donkeys. A carrot is used to positively reinforce the donkey’s behavior, whereas a quick and hard whack with a stick is used as a negative form of motivation. There have been numerous studies done with other animals, as well as humans, on the effectiveness of the two kinds of reinforcement. Conclusion: positive reinforcement produces greater and longer lasting results—most of the time.

Have you ever had someone, like a good friend or a family member, flat out tell you, “Wow... you got fat!”?  I did, and I can tell you that despite the lack of tact and political incorrectness of this statement, it did cause me to take action to change my behaviors that caused me to gain so much weight in the first place. Success stories are filled with similar situations where parents told their kids they are “worthless” or that they “will never amount to anything.” This negative reinforcement, which borders on mental abuse, caused these now successful individuals to take action to prove their parents wrong.

If you have ever had the good fortune to be a parent, you most likely had a time when you caught your 6-month-old putting small objects in his or her mouth. Well, you could praise them every time they don’t have a small object in their mouth, but that is just not practical. Times like these, you must use the stick (figuratively, I hope!)

We have also said that the need to avoid pain is often a greater motivator than the desire to gain pleasure. Charles Dickens understood this concept well when he used the ghost of Christmas future in motivating Scrooge to change his behavior. You don’t hear stories of the CIA using chocolate cake and ice cream to get information out of prisoners.

I know... just when you thought positive reinforcement was the key to human behavior you read this and now are confused once more. So when do we use that carrot and when do we use the stick? Here are a few of my general rules that I have found apply to most situations.

  • When you want the new behavior to last, use the carrot. In the case of a military interrogation, the interrogators do not care if the one withholding the information is full of resentment after giving the information. However, the opposite may be true in the case of regular informants of police or investigators, where building a relationship, and the need for both parties to benefit is important.
  • If you are motivating yourself, use the reinforcement that will have the greatest effect on you. Only you know what really motivates you. If the thought of dying a painful death as a result of lung cancer is a greater motivator than being free from a socially unacceptable habit, then quit smoking for the former reason.
  • If motivating others to do what they are already being paid to do, or are otherwise obligated to do, use a balance of negative and positive reinforcement. For example, in the case of motivating employees to do their assignments on time, you may penalize late assignments by bringing it to the employee’s attention in the form of a written warning, but at the same time, praise on-time assignments by perhaps offering a small reward or recognition for a certain number of assignments all done on time.
  • For most all other situations, use only positive reinforcement.

As for telling people they are fat or worthless, don’t do it. The only real motivators in these cases are not the people who make the obnoxious comments, but the people who see the comment as a wake-up call and motivate themselves to make changes. In no case should one use such negative statements because most of the time, these comments will sink in the subconscious mind of those to whom these comments are directed, and become a belief. Use tact and get your message across in a positive and empowering way.

At times, you will find the stick will bring about better results. However, use the carrot whenever possible for creating lasting changes, especially when it comes to changing the behavior of others.


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 Some discussion questions (some may not apply to this lesson):

  • Have you implemented this idea in your life? How has it been working for you?
  • Do you have any interesting stories related to this lesson? Do tell!
  • What do you admire most about this person? (success biography days)
    From the Course:
    Personal Development
    Year To Success
    Bo Bennett, PhD

    (3 ratings)
    Personal Development : Personal Transformation
    Offered by BooksToCourses.com
    $19.95 FREE
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