How Positive Reinforcement and Punishment Can Be Used to Lower the Use of Plastic Bags by People


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“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both?” – Niccolo Machiavelli. This famous question originates from chapter XVII of The Prince and is an extension on a larger discussion on human nature and virtue that ultimately, at the heart of it, investigates human motivation. Fear and love are both motives to human behavior. When Machiavelli asks his famous questions, he is really interested to know if society is more motivated by fear or by love emanating from an authority figure. This and similar questions have been pondered by many philosophers and scientists, and has span the fields of psychology, law, economy, education, management, child development and many others. Next we examine exactly such question, except our dilemma is more contemporary and specifically defined.

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We are presented with the following question: is it more effective to penalize people by charging them for plastic bags or is it more effective to reward them by paying them for bringing their own reusable bags? The question first implies a certain conclusion we can already draw: that using reusable bags is more desired than using plastic bags. We can clearly assume this as the question forces a penalty on the use of plastic bags and a reward on its alternative, namely using reusable bags. We not only see the evidence in the structure and semantics of the above question, but also in the elements of science and society. According to B.F. Skinner and operant conditioning, punishing behavior decreases the likelihood of the behavior, while rewarding a behavior has an opposite effect (McLeod, 2007). Using reusable bags versus plastic bags is also amicable to the environment. It requires approximately 14 million trees and 12 million barrels of oil annually to satisfy the U.S.’s consumption of plastic bags. Furthermore, the use of plastic bags causes death of more than 100,000 marine animals every year, and takes about 1,000 years to degrade in landfills. However, a single reusable bag can potentially eliminate 1,000 plastic bags over its lifetime and effectively help the environment (Statistics Brain). Finally, from a financial standpoint using reusable bags not only saves money for retails, who spend $4 billion annually on plastic bags, but also cuts the expenses for a city’s waste disposal. For the city of San Francisco, for instance, the annual cost for collecting and disposing plastic bags is equal to $3.6 million, or 7.2 cents per bag (Mirkarimi, 2007).

Why Punishment is More Effective Than Reward

But the questions still remains unanswered–is it more effective to bring out this desired effect by penalizing people for a particular behavior or rewarding them for another? We can answer this question by looking at rewards and punishment as behavioral motives through the eyes, so to speak, of prospect theory . I will argue that punishment is a more powerful motivating force than reward and therefore it is more effective to punish people for using plastic bags than to reward them for using reusable ones. According to Daniel Kahneman’s prospect theory, people are organically loss aversive, that is, they are more responsive to potential losses than to equally valuable gains. For instance, a loss-aversive individual who gains $200, but loses $150 may feel a net loss even though there was a net increase of $50. In other words, people are more motivated to avoid losses than to gain rewards.

In a study conducted in Chicago, IL, John List from the University of Chicago divided 150 public school teachers into two groups. Each group was told that their bonuses will depend on student test performance. Group A would earn a bonus only if student test scores improved by the end of the school year. Failure to do so meant no bonus. Group B would receive a bonus of $4,000 in the beginning of the school year. However, if test scores did not improve by the end of that school year, they would have to surrender the bonus. The result of the study: teacher in group B produced higher student scores than teacher in group A by an average of 7% (Lapowsky). Teachers in group B were at a risk of being penalized–they were threatened to lose their bonus. This is highly indicative that loss aversion was the more effective technique in achieving higher test scores than merely the potential for receiving a bonus.

A closely related concept to the prospect theory, the framing effect , posits that people respond more efficiently to when they have something to lose versus when they have something to gain. In an experiment by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (1981), participants were to choose between two treatments for 600 people affected by a hypothetical deadly disease. Treatment A predicted 200 people would survive, while treatment B had a 33% that everyone would survive and a 66% that no one would survive. When framed positively (how many people would survive), treatment A (200 people will survive) was chosen by 72% of the participants. When framed negatively only 22% of the participants still picked treatment A (400 people will die). In a similar study by Gätcher et al., when a discount was presented for early registration 63% of PhD students registered early to take advantage of the discount. In contrast, when a penalty fee was imposed for late registration, 93% of PhD students registered early. The results of both studies demonstrate that when an event is framed more negatively than positively, people tend to be more motivated to act when they have something to lose.

To answer our question then, it would be more effective to penalize people for using plastic bags than to reward them for using reusable bags. To put it simply, punishment would motivate people to abandon plastic more than an equivalent reward.

What about Positive Reinforcement?

Opponents of the argument made so far would disagree at this point and say something like this: positive reinforcement is closer in nature to intrinsic motivation and better suited at promoting a real change than aversive control. By rewarding a behavior and appealing to people’s good nature, the behavior becomes more internalized and more integrated with the self. People who are incentivized to do good for the environment and the economy may begin to reshape what is an external incentive into an internal motive. Although positive reinforcement is still a type of extrinsic motivation, it is more internalized and integrated than punishment and thus stronger. Rewards also elicit a positive behavioral modification. People who are rewarded versus punished are motivated to learn to perform the desired behavior. For instance, by rewarding the use of reusable bags society also spurs people to actually acknowledge and learn the behavior. Punishment merely avoids the undesired outcome, but has no direct effect in promoting the desired effect. Moreover, rewards are longer-lasting and are not limited to short-term benefits like punishment. Whereas punishment is a temporary solution, rewarding a behavior has durable consequences throughout time (Pokharna, 2011).

Response to Counter-Argument

Although some of the arguments from potential opponents are worthy, when discussing the question of effectiveness, punishment still triumphs over reward. To quickly return to the quote posted in the first paragraph, I believe the answer to Machiavelli is a resounding yes. It is much safer to be feared than loved, or in the terms we are more comfortable with, it is better to punish than to reward. Why? Because while love or rewarding a behavior is maintained by a mere obligation, which can easily be broken when the opportunity presents itself, and in most cases it will given the baseness of men, fear or punishing a behavior is preserved by a dread of penalty or fee, which never fails. If we approach this form a logical standpoint, we will come to this conclusion. If we are spurred to action by a reward, we may take advantage of this reward whenever we choose to, but in case we do not we simply return to a status quo. If, however, we are spurred to action by a punishment, we must act accordingly because in the case we do not we face displeasure. This is true in other situations. A professor will find it more effective to identify the worst student in the class than to identify the best. Similarly, if a critic censures a blog rather than praises it he/she is more likely to see a change on the next entry. People are more responsive to punishment than reward.


Both sides of the argument have their merits. However, when faced with the choice of ruling through rewarding a behavior or punishing it, the resolution remains that the latter seems to be more effective and more practical at creating a desired result. In the case of the bag debate, the choice is that the better course of action is to charge customers for plastic bag usage. According to Machiavelli, punishment, or fear, appears to be the better motivator.

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