The impact of reward and punishment on skill learning depends on task demands.
Steel A., Silson EH., Stagg CJ., Baker CI.
Reward and punishment motivate behavior, but it is unclear exactly how they impact skill performance and whether the effect varies across skills. The present study investigated the effect of reward and punishment in both a sequencing skill and a motor skill context. Participants trained on either a sequencing skill (serial reaction time task) or a motor skill (force-tracking task). Skill knowledge was tested immediately after training, and again 1 hour, 24-48 hours, and 30 days after training. We found a dissociation of the effects of reward and punishment on the tasks, primarily reflecting the impact of punishment. While punishment improved serial reaction time task performance, it impaired force-tracking task performance. In contrast to prior literature, neither reward nor punishment benefitted memory retention, arguing against the common assumption that reward ubiquitously benefits skill retention. Collectively, these results suggest that punishment impacts skilled behavior more than reward in a complex, task dependent fashion.