The Best Way to Change Behavior


Can you remember the last time you achieved a milestone in your life or changed your behavior in a way that you have never imagined? Was that in response to a threat or a reward?

Needless to say, our brain is our engine, from which we receive signals to act. Thus, the language we speak is extremely important; it determines a lot about our physical and mental health.

Threat vs. Reward

Although some people consider that threatening or rewarding are two sides of the same coin, a method to get others to change their behavior, they have a completely different effect on the brain and the body as well. Everyone needs a degree of arousal to act; from an early age, we are introduced to these two concepts in some way: rewarding as motivation, or the threat of punishment.

Both of them work to some degree, but which is better? The promise of carrots or the threat of sticks? Well, a study conducted on this issue has reached very interesting results by highlighting the effect of both methods on the brain and body.

Responses to opportunities and threats are emotional in nature; they are linked directly to the limbic system in the brain, which is responsible for emotional responses. Strong stimulus, such as a threat, triggers a strong emotional response, whether this threat is internal or external. In response to a threat, the sympathetic nervous system is activated to initiate what is often referred to as a “fight or flight” response. As a result, cortisol—the hormone that increases blood sugar and suppresses the immune system so energy can be redirected to address the perceived threat—is released, in addition to other hormones that all try to help the body to get ready for a strong physical response.

On the other hand, when a reward is achieved, the limbic system and basal ganglia, particularly the Nucleus Accumbens (NAc), releases neurotransmitters. They raise dopamine levels and lead to feelings of satisfaction and pleasure. These feelings foster our tendency to repeat the behavior to get the same feeling again.

The study also shows that our tendency to react effectively either to threat or reward changes over the life span. Children tend to respond effectively to the concept of rewarding, while adults can perceive the concept of threatening. However, this detour again above the age of 40, and people act better while receiving a reward.

Positive Strategy for Better Results

In short, threats and warnings have little impact on behavior. In the long run, they lead to deficiencies in creativity and energy that will burn out quickly, and increased stress, which affects our memory and ability to focus, and creates feelings of panic. Nevertheless, reward triggers satisfaction, helps us build purpose, and charges the brain tends to seek progress.

If you have ever wondered why people never have the same reaction although introduced to the same kind of treatment, the answer now is clearer.

Watch this TEDx Talk on
How to motivate yourself to change your behavior
by Tali Sharot


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