Driven by Reward or Punishment

22nd September 2023
Read time: 3 mins 18 secs

Lets say you’ve got a big game coming up in 4 weeks time.

Your coach has told you that you could be offered a professional contract at the end of it.

But it’s between you and one other player.

When do you start preparing? 4 weeks? 3 weeks? 2 weeks? 5 days out?

Or let’s say your coach has told you that at the end of the season a player is going to lose their place in the team, and it’s between you and another player.

These two scenarios offer a gain/non-gain scenario or a loss/non-loss scenario.

Or, in other words, an opportunity for reward or an opportunity for punishment or consequences.

And here’s where we find two drives that we fall into.

We are driven by the idea of rewards or wanting to avoid punishment or consequences.

Which one drives you? Can you think where you sit?

If I think back to my career, I was driven by the fact that I could lose my place to another player. Or that I may not even get my place if I didn’t work at it.

Jonny Wilkinson is famously quoted about his fear of failure and how it drove him to strive for perfection (fear of failure being a common symptom of perfectionism).

3 Systems at Play

Psychologists Gray and McNaughton revised the Reinforcement Sensitivity Theory.

And found that there are three systems at play when dealing with motivation towards a goal.

One that is driven towards reward (Behavioural approach system)

One that drives us away from punishment or consequences (Fight Flight Freeze System)

An additional system (Behavioural inhibition system) is used to resolve conflict between the two systems.

For example, you are kicking a goal to win the football World Cup. You have the opportunity for reward, but the threat of missing, losing the game, and being ridiculed by the media.

This conflict will, in part, be decided by:

  • Previous experiences
  • Reward outweighing threat
  • Threat outweighing reward
  • Your own sensitivity to reward
  • Your own sensitivity to punishment

But as a general rule, we want to move towards reward and away from punishment.

Depending on your personality, you might be more sensitive to reward or punishment.

Yet it’s worth knowing that given where you sit on either of these, that you use them to move toward positive behaviours.

While being reward-driven naturally has more behaviours associated with being positive, such as optimism and hope for success, it does include impulsiveness and addictive behaviours, poor inhibition strategies, and high-risk behaviours.

The punishment sensitivity can explain why people avoid situations that have consequences and create fear (not anxiety) in order to get away from the situation.

Make Your Drive Work for You

The goal of this edition is to get you thinking about where you lie between these two.

If you’re driven towards reward, you may want to make sure you don’t get too obsessive or addicted to certain types of behaviours that could have a negative effect on you.

If you’re punishment sensitive, which is associated with more negative emotions, can you look to reframe your thoughts into actions that will help you move towards a successful outcome. And so instead of wanting to avoid the situation, you actively choose to focus more and try harder.

So whenever you are faced with a goal in front of you, what are you driven towards?

Whenever you're ready, there is a couple of ways I can help you:

MindStrong Sport App – Mental Skills Training for Athletes

Personal Mindset Coaching - Contact for more

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