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Revisiting the Role of Rewards in Motivation and Learning: Implications of Neuroscientific Research

Abstract

Rewards have been examined extensively by both psychologists and neuorscientists and have become one of the most contentious issues in social and educational psychology. In psychological research, reward processing has typically been studied in relation to behavioral outcomes. In contrast, neuroscientists have been examining how rewards are processed by brain structures that are related to the reward circuitry, and in a few instances have also evaluated behavioral outcomes. In this article, I first present findings from both the social and educational psychology and neuroscientific research on reward processing that have frequently been reported without acknowledgment of the presence of the other. Subsequently, five topics pointing to the need for integration of research findings across these two fields are considered. These include the following: (a) distinctions between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation, (b) causes of undermining effects of rewards, (c) potential benefits of choice provided for individuals, (d) differences in reward types, and (e) individual differences in reward processing. It is argued that, if positive aspects of rewards are to be utilized and their potentially negative effects are to be avoided, neuroscientific, social, and educational research findings need to be integrated. This paper provides a first step toward such integration.

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Notes

  1. Several review articles that focus on maladaptive reward circuitry in adolescence are available for interested readers. For example, see Casey, Jones, and Somerville (2011) Choudhury et al. (2009), Crone and Westenberg (2009), Fareri et al. (2008).

  2. The "Handbook of Approach and Avoidance Motivation" (Elliot, 2008) is a rare example of an excellent, integrated publication that combines neuroscientific and psychological studies on a motivational topic.

  3. In Web of Science a TOPIC search for neuroscience AND rewards returns 944 citations.

  4. Whereas the neuro-chemical basis of reward function is the DA system, other neuro-transmitters like GABA are also involved in the reward process. (See e.g., Cohen et al. 2012).

  5. Recently the precise role of the OFC in reward guided learning and decision making has been evaluted by Rushworth et al. (2011), suggesting interactions of the various frontal lobe areas with one another, as well as with their brain regions.

  6. Interestingly, Martin-Soelch et al. (2001) reported that in contrast to healthy subjects, nicotine and opiate addicts responded in typical reward-related regions to monetary rewards but not to non-monetary reinforcements. Reduced activation in performance-related regions of addicted subjects was also found. These findings suggest that reward systems in addicts are modified by experience and chemicals.

  7. Renninger and Hidi (2011) argued that this variable reflected triggered situational interest (SI) as both curiosity and SI represent an internally driven search for novelty (Quintanilha 2010), a search that is rewarding.

  8. I gratefully acknowledge that the relevance of the Incentive Relativity research to the topic of this paper was suggested to me by Kent Berridge.

  9. Patall’s (2012) reviewed the theory and research related to the motivational complexity of choosing in the area of social and educational psychology. This review, which is beyond the scope of this article, contains over 260 references for interested readers.

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Acknowledgments

First, I would like to thank my friend and long-time collaborator, Ann Renninger, for her help and encouragement during the preparation of this manuscript. Without her intellectual input, critical comments, and editorial assistance, this paper probably would have never been published. Second, I also want to acknowledge the help I received from Patricia Alexander and four neuroscientists: Ken Berridge, Brian Knutson, Kou Murayama, and Jaak Panksepp. Their willingness to have a dialog and ongoing conversations with me were invaluable. Helpful discussions with Pietro Boscolo, Judy Cameron, Rob Eisenberger, Rachael Karmiol, Mark Lepper, Steven Reiss, and Barry Zimmerman are also gratefully noted. I appreciate the support I received from as the Editorial assistance of Shubhangi Rathore, Anubhuti Jain, Andre Hidi, and Molly Hidi.

Finally, my gratitude goes to my husband, Andrew Hidi for his moral as well as financial support, and patience during the arduous journey that led to the publication of my work.

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Hidi, S. Revisiting the Role of Rewards in Motivation and Learning: Implications of Neuroscientific Research. Educ Psychol Rev 28, 61–93 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-015-9307-5

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Keywords

  • Rewards
  • Reward circuitry
  • Neuroscience
  • Motivation
  • Learning
  • Brain activation