Science project

Reward or Punishment: Which is the Better Motivator?

Research Question:

  • Will people put forth greater effort when promised a reward for good performance or threatened with a punishment for bad?

The answer to this question has far-reaching implications in areas ranging from government to law-enforcement to school and workplace policy to parenting.


  • 60 or more fancy pencils
  • Lots of plain paper
  • A table or desk and chair
  • A three-minute timer
  • Paper and pencil for recording and analyzing data
  • 40 or more test subjects

Experimental Procedure:

  1. Divide your test subjects into two groups, a “reward group” and a “punishment group.” Do not reveal to them the true nature of the experiment; instead tell them that you will be testing people’s ability to sit still and do a repetitive task.
  2. You will meet individually with each member of the groups. When meeting with a test subject for the first time, begin by thanking him for his participation in your project and give him a fancy pencil as a token of your appreciation. Subjects may use the pencil to take the test.
  3. Explain the test: “You will sit still at a desk for three minutes. Do your best to remain perfectly still (except for your writing hand). No moving, no shifting your weight, no scratching an itch, no coughing, etc. In those three minutes, draw rows of little circles, as many as you can in the allotted time.”
  4. Lastly, just before beginning the test, tell subjects from the “reward group” that if they do well on the test that you will give them a second pencil as a reward. Tell subjects from the “punishment group” that if they do poorly on the test you will have to take back the pencil you gave them.
  5. Conduct the test. While the subject is taking the test, watch him carefully. Keep a tally of all disallowed movements. At the end of the test collect the circle paper and file it with the tally sheet noting which group the subject was in.
  6. Thank the subject. Let everyone keep/have the extra pencil. You don’t want to actually make anyone feel bad.
  7. After testing all subjects, analyze the tally sheets and circle papers. How many disallowed movements did the people from the reward group on average make? How many in the punishment group? What is the average number of circles reward group subjects drew? Punishment group subjects? Did subjects from one or the other of the groups do on average a better job of sitting still? Did subjects from one or the other of the groups draw on average more circles? Were differences significant? What might this say about reward and punishment as motivators?

Terms/Concepts: reward, punishment, motivator

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