Do you tend to use a carrot or a stick on yourself? This idiom refers to the idea that a cart driver can use a carrot or a stick to motivate a horse to move forward, thus pulling the cart. The horse will either move forward by the enticement of the carrot, or by the avoidance of punishment via the stick.
Research suggests that some people are more responsive to reward and others more responsive to punishment. Interestingly, it seems that genetics may determine which works better for you. Some people are genetically more responsive to dopamine, while others are more responsive to serotine, and this seems to make the difference.
Research also suggests, however, that punishment can create unexpected and unwanted outcomes. Sometimes punishment can backfire by actually increasing the undesired behavior, creating negative emotions or increasing aggression.
The impact of the carrot or stick choice can really be seen when we are trying to motivate ourselves. We can motivate ourselves by setting up rewards for getting tasks done. For example, we might give ourselves a night out as a reward for cleaning out a closet.
We can also reward ourselves by imagining or visualizing the natural positive consequences of working hard and completing a task. I did this during graduate school, as I imagined myself enjoying working in my private practice, as a motivation to work hard on my doctoral studies. It really did work to keep me going during the hard times.
People use punishment on themselves when they put themselves down or criticize themselves for poor performance. They beat themselves up, and claim this is necessary to make them try harder. It almost never works, and reminds me of the old poster saying, “The beatings in this company will continue until morale improves.”
So today, watch your thinking to see whether you use a carrot or stick on yourself. Consider the possibility that your self-punishment is actually hurting your performance. Try visualizing the positive results when you accomplish a task, or promising yourself a pleasurable activity for task success. I think you’ll find that it works better as a motivation, and doesn’t damage your self-esteem.
Comments: Please share some of your experiences with the motivators of reward and punishment.