Rewards, or punishments?

Parents and counselors who are encouraging teens to make application progress might be interested in a recent study shared in this Harvard Business Review piece, which showed that our brains are more likely to take action to pursue a reward than they are to avoid a punishment.

“Neuroscience suggests that when it comes to motivating action (for example, getting people to work longer hours or producing star reports), rewards may be more effective than punishments…When we expect something good, our brain initiates a ‘go’ signal. This signal is triggered by dopaminergic neurons deep in the mid-brain that move up through the brain to the motor cortex, which controls action. In contrast, to avoid bad things — poison, deep waters, untrustworthy people — we usually simply need to stay put, to not reach out. So our brain has evolved to accommodate an environment in which often (though not always) the best way to not get hurt is to avoid action altogether. When we anticipate something bad, our brain triggers a ‘no go’ signal.”

Instead of focusing on the future punishments that come with failing to make enough progress—stress, encroaching deadlines, the possible loss of admissions advantages at some colleges, etc.—try focusing on the rewards of making deliberate, thoughtful progress, like completing applications long before friends do, enjoying application-free winter holidays, and gaining admissions advantages at schools that evaluate applications on a rolling basis.

It’s not likely to work like a magic wand. But the college admissions process can always use more positivity. If doing so actually motivates the students immersed in it to dig in and make more progress, that’s a bonus in my book.