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The carrot or the stick?

Should a child be punished, for example, to get him/her to produce good results at school or should the child be offered a reward for success?

Although they did not answer this question directly,  the INSERM researchers under Mathias Pessiglione at the Neuroscience Research Centre of the Pitié Salpêtrière Hospital recently showed that very specific regions are activated in the brain when faced with either situation. Certain regions of the brain (the anterior insula and the dorsal striatum) constitute a system dedicated to avoiding punishment, as opposed to the well-known system for obtaining rewards. In other words, it would appear that different regions of the brain are activated when confronted with the threat of punishment (one does all one can to avoid it) or, on the other hand, when faced with the promise of a reward (one does all one can to obtain it).

The general method adopted by the researchers in reaching this conclusion was to use an MRI scan to identify the regions of the brain that teach how to avoid punishment, and then to observe the behaviour of patients in whom these regions are affected by neurological disease such as a brain tumour (glioma) or Huntington’s Disease.

The results confirm the hypothesis of the existence of two different systems (punishment and reward) since the researchers showed that these patients remained capable of learning through reward (“the carrot”) but could not learn by punishment (“the stick”).

The computer modelling then performed by the researchers subsequently suggested complementary roles for these structures. The anterior insula is involved in the learning process, in other words it makes it possible to anticipate what sorts of behaviour are liable to be punished in a given context, while the striatum dorsal intervenes at the moment of decision-making, i.e. in choosing to avoid behaviour that is likely to be punished. The research was recently published in the journal entitled Neuron.

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Researcher Contact

Mathias Pessiglione


Critical roles for anterior insula and dorsal striatum in punishment-based avoidance learning.

Motivation, Brain and Behavior (MBB) Team, Institut du Cerveau et de la Moelle Épinière (ICM), Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière, 75013 Paris, France; INSERM UMR 975, CNRS UMR 7225, Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UMPC – Paris 6), 75013 Paris, France. Neuron decembre 2012