Punishment can act as a performance enhancer in a similar way to monetary reward, a new study has claimed. Researchers from the University of Nottingham looked at how the efficiency with which we make decisions based on ambiguous sensory information - such as visual or auditory - is affected by the potential for, and severity of, anticipated punishment. To investigate this, they asked participants in the study to perform a simple perceptual task - asking them to judge whether a blurred shape behind a rainy window is a person or something else. They punished incorrect decisions by imposing monetary penalties.
At the same time, they measured the participants' brain activity in response to different amounts of monetary punishment. They found that participants' performance increased systematically as the amount of punishment increased, suggesting that punishment acts as a performance enhancer in a similar way to monetary reward. At the neural level, the academics identified multiple and distinct brain activations induced by punishment and distributed throughout different areas of the brain. Crucially, the timing of these activations confirmed that the punishment does not influence the way in which the brain processes the sensory evidence but does have an impact on the brain's decision maker responsible for decoding sensory information at a later stage in the decision-making process. Finally, they showed that those participants who showed the greatest improvements in performance also showed the biggest changes in brain activity. This is a key finding as it provides a potential route to study differences between individuals and their personality traits in order to characterise why some may respond better to reward and punishment than others. "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," lead researcher Dr Marios Philiastides said in a statement.