Charging for mistakes can sharpen brain

U. NOTTINGHAM (UK) — To improve performance, punishment can work just as well as a monetary reward, a new study reports.

“This work reveals important new information about how the brain functions that could lead to new methods of diagnosing neural development disorders such as autism, ADHD, and personality disorders, where decision-making processes have been shown to be compromised,” says Marios Philiastides, lecturer at the University of Nottingham.

The study looked at how the efficiency with which we make decisions based on ambiguous sensory information—such as visual or auditory—is affected by the potential for anticipated punishment and how severe it might be.


To investigate this, researchers asked participants to perform a simple perceptual task—asking them to judge whether a blurred shape behind a rainy window is a person or something else.

They punished incorrect decisions by imposing monetary penalties. At the same time, they measured the participants’ brain activity in response to different amounts of monetary punishment. Brain activity was recorded, non-invasively, using an EEG machine which detects and amplifies brain signals from the surface of the scalp through a set of small electrodes embedded in a swim-like cap fitted on the participants’ head.

Participants’ performance increased systematically as the amount of punishment increased, suggesting that punishment acts as a performance enhancer in a similar way to monetary reward.

At the neural level, the researchers identified multiple and distinct brain activations induced by punishment and distributed throughout different areas of the brain.

Crucially, the timing of these activations confirmed that the punishment does not influence the way in which the brain processes the sensory evidence but does have an impact on the brain’s decision maker responsible for decoding sensory information at a later stage in the decision-making process.

The participants who showed the greatest improvements in performance also showed the biggest changes in brain activity—a key finding because it provides a potential route to study differences between individuals and their personality traits in order to characterize why some may respond better to reward and punishment than others.

A more thorough understanding of the influence of punishment on decision-making and how we make choices could lead to useful information on how to use incentive-based motivation to encourage certain behavior, the researchers say.

Source: University of Nottingham