Praise Is a “Social Reward,” As Good As Cash

There’s an interesting new study just published in the journal PLOS ONE that can help us understand the effect of praise in a new way.

A team of Japanese researchers led by Sho Sugawara asked study participants to learn and perform a specific motor task (pushing keys on a keyboard in a particular sequence as fast as possible). Afterwards, some of the study subjects were praised by the investigator, some of them watched other participants receive praise, and some of them evaluated their own performance on a graph.

When the participants were asked to repeat the finger exercise the next day, the group of participants who received direct compliments from an evaluator performed better than participants from the other groups.

In an earlier study using brain scans, the researchers found that the same area of the brain, the striatum, is activated when a person is rewarded with a compliment or cash. “To the brain, receiving a compliment is as much a social reward as being rewarded money,” Sugawara notes. (Read more about the study here.)

It’s interesting to think of praise as a “social reward,” and notable that it appears to activate the same part of the brain as a cash reward. My question is this: It’s been repeatedly shown that paying people to carry out a task induces them to perform the task in the short term, but over the long term reduces their motivation (once the money stops flowing, they stop performing).

Could praise have the salutary effect of encouraging performance, without the downside of reducing intrinsic motivation? After a while, for example, people might internalize others’ praise and feel good about doing the task even if they’re not still hearing the compliments spoken out loud.

What do you think?

2 Responses to “Praise Is a “Social Reward,” As Good As Cash”

  1. It’s about this time someone should point out that this is really not “new” in any sense of the word: Alfie Kohn wrote an entire book about the issue of praise many years ago, and Carol Dweck has been conducting tons of research. Alfie’s book is called “Punished By Rewards,” and Carol’s book is called “Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.” They’re both terrific reads.

  2. Alice King says:

    Cdonversely, witholding praise is a form of social punishment.

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