Original Published Date: 
Thursday, June 17, 2021

Full article issued by The University of New South Wales (UNSW).

An experimental video game designed by ARC-supported psychologists and neuroscientists from UNSW Sydney and Western Sydney University has thrown new light on why punishment fails to act as a deterrent to some people, while others will do so much to avoid it.

Dr Philip Jean-Richard-dit-Bressel of the Behavioural Neuroscience Lab and Discovery Early Career Researcher Awardee (DECRA) Dr Jessica Lee of the Human Learning Lab at UNSW’s School of Psychology led an experiment using a simple online game given to 135 psychology students. They tested how much students changed their behaviours if they resulted in bad outcomes, or in other words, how sensitive they were to punishment. The key question was what caused differences in punishment sensitivity across individuals?

'We designed a game where players could make certain responses that won them points, but some responses also lost them points,' Dr Jean-Richard-dit-Bressel says.

'After playing it for a few rounds, many players drastically changed their behaviour to avoid losing points, which was a good strategy. However, many other players did not avoid point-loss, even by the end of the game, and as a result, did much worse at it.

The study shows that an overlooked explanation for a person’s apparent insensitivity to punishment is that they may not be noticing how their choices result in particular outcomes as quickly as others.

'If this is something some people really struggle with, then this could be a vital intervention target when trying promote beneficial behaviour and decision-making in individuals,' says Dr Jean-Richard-dit-Bressel.

The researchers say that they were amazed at how clear the results were, and that that this is the first time this has been highlighted as a key source of differences in humans. 

'There was this obvious split between people who learned to avoid punishment and those who didn’t. And both groups of people were engaging with the game – everyone was clearly motivated to gain points. They really just differed in how they went about it, which entirely depended on what they had learned about their behaviour.'

Photo credit: 

Many players realised that choosing Planet A increased the risk of attack from a pirate spaceship and subsequent points loss, so learned to avoid Planet A. Image: UNSW.