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"The impact of reward and punishment on skill learning depends on task demands" - Steel et al. 2016

We are pleased to announce the publication of our latest paper by PhD student Adam Steel.

Adam is on the NIH/OxCam graduate program, co-supervised by Dr Charlotte Stagg in Oxford, and Dr Chris Baker at the NIH.

This paper: "The impact of reward and punishment on skill learning depends on task demands" is published in the journal Scientific Reports (part of the Nature Publishing Group) and can be found online here.


If we want to teach people a new skill, is it better to give positive encouragement, or are negative consequences more effective?  We set out to address the question by teaching 72 participants two different skills in the lab, and gave them reward, punishment, or uninformative feedback.  We found that the effects of feedback varied between tasks.  When learning a more cognitive task, subjects performed better when they were punished.  However, punishment impaired performance when subjects trained on a motor task. We conclude that the impact of reward and punishment on skill learning does not conform to a single heuristic, but rather varies based on the skill being learned.


Reward and punishment motivate behavior, but it is unclear exactly how they impact skill performance and whether the effect varies across skills. The present study investigated the effect of reward and punishment in both a sequencing skill and a motor skill context. Participants trained on either a sequencing skill (serial reaction time task) or a motor skill (force-tracking task). Skill knowledge was tested immediately after training, and again 1hour, 24–48hours, and 30 days after training. We found a dissociation of the effects of reward and punishment on the tasks, primarily reflecting the impact of punishment. While punishment improved serial reaction time task performance, it impaired forcetracking task performance. In contrast to prior literature, neither reward nor punishment benefitted memory retention, arguing against the common assumption that reward ubiquitously benefits skill retention. Collectively, these results suggest that punishment impacts skilled behavior more than reward in a complex, task dependent fashion.