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Rewards and Punishment

Posted April. 03, 2010 08:16,   


In the past, public education was centered on punishment. Students got punished when they were tardy, dozed off in class, failed to properly decorate classrooms, and did not wash their hands. Punishment for bad behavior and no reward for good behavior were the standard in education. Rewards, however, is now considered more effective than punishment. The research of Harvard University professor David Rand supports the idea. His team conducted a study in which poor performers got punished in a team and good performers received awards in another team. The latter showed a better performance.

New York’s businessman-turned-mayor Michael Bloomberg applied the award strategy to municipal affairs. For example, he attempted to change poor people by providing monetary rewards for good behavior. New York has given 150 U.S. dollars to exemplary workers and 25-50 dollars to those with good school attendance. Over the past two years, the city has doled out 14 million dollars to around 2,400 poor households. The effect was poor, however. After the project was launched, only 16 percent of poor households said their living standards had improved. Even monetary rewards could not change the behavior of students because they did not enjoy school life before the project began. Accordingly, suspension of the project is under consideration.

Bloomberg’s predecessor Rudolph Giuliani was different. He said robbers could not be stopped if pedestrians can cross the street when the light is red with impunity. Giuliani adopted a “zero tolerance” policy under which even a minor mistake was severely punished, also known as the “broken windows theory.” Under his leadership, New York police cracked down on minor offenses such as destruction of car windows, graffiti and jumping the turnstiles at subway stations. Because of the effectiveness of his policy, the violent crime rate fell by almost half under Giuliani’s term. In short, punishment changed New York, which was called as the “city of crime.”

In the ancient Chinese book “Han Fe Zi,” a saying goes that wise men should let the world know the way toward benefits by receiving awards and the way toward damage by receiving punishment. That means both rewards and punishment are important for a nation to run effectively. Another Chinese philosophy book, “The Book of Zhuangzi,” says even a big world is not enough to award and punish. That means rewards and punishment are useless if a person who gets either rewards or punishment does not change. That explains why politics, which is required to move the hearts of the public, is tough.

Editorial Writer Lee Jin-nyong (jinnyong@donga.com)