MIND Guest Blog

MIND Guest Blog

Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American Mind

The Psychology of Freedom


I’d like to examine the concept of freedom in a somewhat unusual way — from the viewpoint of motivational psychology.

The starting point is to realize that there are basically four ways of influencing behavior: reward, punishment, restraint, and compulsion. Reward means offering the subject something good for performing an action. Punishment means threatening the subject with something bad for performing an action. Restraint means physically blocking the subject from performing an action, for example preventing the subject from walking on a lawn by putting a fence around it. Compulsion means physically forcing the subject to perform an action, as for example causing a man to get on an airplane by dragging him onto it. (Footnote: by rewards, I don’t just mean physical things like money or food. A smile, a kind word, or even a moment of attention also function as rewards. Conversely, punishment doesn’t just mean physical harm. A frown, a sharp word, a withdrawal of attention, or a time-out also function as punishments.)

The main point that I want to make is that each of these ways of influencing behavior has a different impact on our sense of freedom.

We never feel that our freedom is reduced when we are influenced by rewards. It doesn’t matter how compelling the reward is. If I go up to a homeless man on the street and hand him $1000, I can be virtually certain that he will take it, but nobody would say that I have reduced his freedom by making the offer. Rewards can create conflict situations, if they are offered for doing things that we otherwise wouldn’t, but even then we don’t think of them as reducing our freedom.

Punishment, restraint, and compulsion do, however, reduce our sense of freedom.

The greatest sense of unfreeness comes from compulsion. If we are physically compelled to do something, we feel a total absence of freedom, even if it is something we would willingly have done in the absence of compulsion.

Restraint and punishment are viewed as reductions in freedom in proportion to their severity. For restraint: If I prevent somebody from walking on a lawn by putting a fence around it, that’s a reduction in freedom, but not a terribly onerous one. If I lock a man in a jail cell, though, that’s a huge reduction in freedom. It is similar for threats of punishment. If I stop a man from talking by frowning at him, that’s a minor reduction in freedom. If I make him give me his wallet by pointing a gun at him, that’s a huge reduction in freedom. In fact, we tend to equate very severe threats of punishment with compulsion, even though logically they are not the same thing.

In summary, we regard reward motivation as maximizing freedom, restraint and threats of punishment as reducing it in proportion to their severity, and compulsion as totally depriving us of freedom.

It follows that a maximally free society would be one where people are influenced as much as possible by offers of reward, as little as possible by restraints or threats of punishment, and rarely if ever by compulsion. A Utopian society would be one where rewards are the only motivation ever used.

Unfortunately, such a Utopian society is never going to happen, at least until humans become a different type of organism. The reason lies in a basic property of reward motivation.

To understand that reason, it is necessary to make a distinction between doing and not-doing — that is, between actively initiating a behavior, versus refraining from initiating a behavior. Rewards are effective at motivating doing, but they are not effective at motivating not-doing. If you want a child to do her homework, offering a reward such as the ability to watch a TV show is a reasonable approach. But if you want a child to stop making noise, offering a reward doesn’t work very well. The reward needs to be unreasonably large to be effective, and doing that repeatedly actually encourages performing the obnoxious behavior in order to be rewarded for stopping. On a more serious scale, how could you possibly use rewards to influence people not to rob banks?

The flip side is that threats of punishment are effective at motivating not-doing, but they are not very effective at motivating doing. It is usually possible to get a child to do her homework by threatening punishment, but often the punishment has to be unreasonably large. Moreover, the use of punishment always gives rise to resentment and dislike.

So the bottom line is that if we want a society where people feel free, we should try to develop a society where people are motivated as much as possible by rewards and as little as possible by punishment or restraint — but we need to realize that punishment and restraint will always be required to some degree, to stop people from behaving antisocially. How do we achieve such a society? That’s the key question, of course, but it is beyond the scope of this short essay.


Footnote: The ideas here are my attempt to summarize in a few words a vast and vastly controversial literature extending over decades. The concept of dividing motivational factors into reward, punishment, compulsion, and restraint is implicit in B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity, a book that is well worth reading, even though Skinner goes astray at many points and often obscures simple things by overcomplicating them. Skinner also believed that punishment is always counterproductive, but in my view his arguments for that are unconvincing.

The use of reward and punishment for motivating people has been particularly controversial in the literature. I believe this is largely because when people hear the word “reward”, they automatically think of large overt rewards such as money; when they hear “punishment”, they think of large overt punishments such as hitting. Human beings are actually hypersensitive to reward and punishment, and in many cases a smile or a frown are more than enough to do the job. We also readily generate internal rewards and punishments; adults more readily than children. Using large overt rewards or punishments often has the effect of flooding the system, producing a range of unwanted consequences. That’s why many writers have argued that rewards and punishments are not useful for teaching children — but it misses the point. If you really want to understand what it would be like to teach without reward or punishment, think about teaching without ever smiling or frowning; without ever saying an encouraging or discouraging word. But if you would like to see the argument in the other direction framed as strongly as possible, see the book Punished by Rewards, by Alfie Kohn.

My perspective here is largely that of a neuroscientist. We don’t have a very good understanding of the neural mechanisms of motivation and decision-making yet, but we are learning fast, and it is clear that structures such as the prefrontal cortex, basal ganglia, and dopamine system play central roles. See the book Your Brain Is (Almost) Perfect: How We Make Decisions by Read Montague for a readable overview of recent progress.

In my short essay I only discuss the perception of freedom, and not the question of whether there is such a thing as true freedom. That is of course a very important question, but it is beyond my scope. For the moment I’ll simply point out that even if there is such a thing as true freedom, the perception of freedom would still be important. True freedom would not be very satisfying if it didn’t leave us feeling free. See Daniel Dennett’s Freedom Evolves for a thorough philosophical discussion of these issues.

Image: Pascual De Ruvo

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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