Consequences influence performance, change brain activity

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We try to focus on the positive – dangle the carrot rather than wield the stick. But a new study out of The University of Nottingham has found that it makes no difference which we use when trying to improve performance; they each work equally as well.

“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,” said lead researcher Dr. Mario Philiastides.

Imposing penalties increased performance

His study sought to show how the efficiency with which we make decisions based on ambiguous sensory information – through our eyes or ears – is affected by the potential for anticipated punishment. Research subjects were asked to do something simple: identify a blurred shape behind a rainy window as a person or something else.

Incorrect decisions were punished with a monetary penalty. The subjects’ brains were monitored by EEG for reaction at different monetary levels. The researchers found that performance increased as the amount of the punishment increased. Punishment could be a performance enhancer in the same way that a monetary reward can.

Multiple and distinct brain activities were engaged and changed

At the neural levels, as the EEG readings were reviewed, the researchers identified multiple and distinct brain activations induced by punishment and distributed throughout different areas of the brain. Importantly, the timing of these activities confirmed that the punishment does not influence the way the brain processes information but does have an impact on the brain’s decoding of sensory information at a later stage in the decision-making process.

Researchers also found that the participants who had the best improvement showed the biggest changes in brain activity. This is key as it provides a potential route to study differences between individuals and their personality traits in order to characterize why some people respond better to incentives than others.

Source: MedicalNewsToday, University of Nottingham

 
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