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Reward rather than punish

People prefer to reward cooperative behaviour than punish egotistical behaviour, even if this egotism has a negative effect on others. This is the conclusion of organisational psychologist Welmer Molenmaker in his research on the willingness to reward or punish cooperative behaviour. PhD defence 19 January.

Psychological barrier

If people can reward and punish, they generally prefer to reward cooperative behaviour and are reticent about punishing egotistical behaviour. This is what Molenmaker has concluded from his PhD research. People are reticent about doling out punishment because they feel personally responsible for its harmful effect on the recipient. Although people are very open to rewarding cooperative behaviour, they appear to need to overcome a psychological barrier before they can punish non-cooperative behaviour.

Group interest versus individual interest

The greatest challenge for any society is to preserve the common welfare, because the group interest does not necessarily correspond with the individual interest. Situations in which such a conflict of interest arises are called social dilemmas. Pursuing your own interests at the expense of those of the group can have disastrous consequences for the common welfare. Reward and punishment are an effect way to ensure that people put aside their own interests and place the group interests first.


In a series of experiments, Molenmaker confronted the participants with other people’s choices in social dilemmas. In one such experiment, they were presented with a situation in which members of a group could donate money to a joint pot or keep it for themselves. The money donated was doubled and shared equally among the group members, regardless whether the group members had donated money to the pot. In other words, group members could serve the group interest by donating a lot of money to the joint pot, because this would benefit everyone. However, they could also choose to donate very little and thus cash in on the donations of the others. The participants were then given the opportunity to financially reward or punish the choice behaviour of the other members of the group. And the results? The participants did not punish the ‘stingy’ group members as often or as substantially as they rewarded the ‘generous’ ones. If they were given the option to reward and punish, a clear majority refrained from doling out any punishment, which meant that uncooperative behaviour went unpunished. They preferred to reward cooperative behaviour.

More effective use of reward and punishment

This research shows that there are psychological processes that facilitate and inhibit the willingness to reward and punish. It therefore provides new insight into more effective use of reward and punishment in practice. In his current research Molenmaker is looking at why people often exhibit cooperative behaviour. He is also looking once again at the role of the willingness to reward.