The Gut-Brain Axis

The Gut-Brain Axis

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Do Kids Need to Catch up on Learning?

Do Kids Need to Catch up on Learning?

Differentiating learning, development, and knowledge

Reading time: about 9 minutes

Different lockdowns in different countries have led to different forms of home-schooling and disruption in children’s education and even critical exams. Some claim, dramatically, we will have a lost generation. But the concern is how will kids catch up on all the learning they have missed – fret not the brain will pick this up – but there are some genuine causes for concern when we look to the brain and disrupted learning over the last year or so.

learning school brain

There is a worry in many societies and educational authorities of how to enable kids to catch up on their curriculums through disrupted schooling and loss of classroom hours during the pandemic. In the UK there have been proposals of shortening the summer holidays, for example.

So, do kids need to catch up on learning?

Stupid question, I say (I am being a bit provocative, but just a bit).

Why is it a stupid question? Well, it confuses the concept of learning vs. knowledge and particularly curriculum-based knowledge and shows complete ignorance of how the brain actually works. Admittedly educational authorities want to get kids through exams with high grades – it is their measure of success. So, let’s review some of the concepts of how the brain learns and whether catching up on curriculum-based matter, matters, or if it can be done quicker than many may assume.

Brain Development

Let’s do what we always do and look to the brain. There are well-documented periods of brain development. For example, the concept of theory of mind. Theory of mind is the ability to appreciate how other people think. For example, children under the age of 4 may not understand that a stranger doesn’t know the name of their teacher. They know the name of the teacher, so they assume everybody else does. Around about 4-5 kids start to understand this and apply this to ever more situations: this is therefore a natural development of the brain and the growing prefrontal cortices. Similarly, before the age of eight children playing games tend to be very selfish and around eight this shifts to understanding better concepts of fairness and applying this in games with other children. Parents may like to think it is their constant appeals to be fairer, but this development will happen irrespective of parents (parent’s input does have some influence, but probably more on the genetic side).

These developments are not hard cut off points but change gradually over time, a little bit earlier and a little bit later in different children, and also moderated or attenuated by certain personality traits. The big point here is that brain development happens irrespective of what environment we’re in and not because of school. Childrens’ brains will mature and develop whatever environment they’re in (if not abusive – but that’s another story – I am assuming a healthy family and social environment – which sadly is not always the case).

The next issue is that of learning – and here I refer to learning skills such as reading and writing particularly with a view to younger children. Parents in some countries and educational authorities may worry about having a disrupted year. But consider this: in England, and the US, I believe, children start formal schooling at 4 years old but in countries like Switzerland and Finland this is normally 6 or even 7. So, starting formal schooling and literacy training 2-3 years later than in England. And yet this has no negative impacts on literacy, or contrastingly it may have positive impacts, with many countries with later schooling ranking better than the UK on literacy rates (there are many factors at play here). Also consider that Finland scores admirably on the standardised testing the (in)famous PISA scores compared to many other countries in the world but with much less schooling time (they have very long holidays to boot).

Why would that be the case? Well back to brain development, languages require considerable cognitive resources and many of these develop with age so developing, or rather trying to develop, certain skills earlier may not really have a benefit in the long run. So, with that in mind it is difficult to see how a disrupted year in schooling is likely to inhibit these younger children (those below the age of 10).

What about older kids?

However, a more genuine concern has been with older children, particularly those coming up to critical exams, those for example, between 14 and 16, or 16 and 18. Again, these ages differ in different countries. Here we do have to differentiate between learning and knowledge. How much do you adults reading this remember from your schooling? Probably not much – I certainly have difficulty doing my daughter’s mathematics. How much do you even remember from university if you attended? Most of us have forgotten 90%. This raises a big issue in society of what is the point of trying to stuff kids full of knowledge if this is quickly forgotten? Another topic for another day – but back to the brain. In the brain learning takes place when we have built new connections and in behavioural learning this is when a new behaviour has been acquired and can successfully and automatically be implemented – think hitting a tennis ball or being polite in a shop. We spoke about the cerebellum in an earlier article and how this is involved in behavioural and cognitive learning and particularly feed-forward mechanism of predicting the future.

The point is learning, and knowledge, are different things with some similarities. Another point is that knowledge is easy to come across, access, and memorise – learning a list of history dates requires effort but can be done by most brains pretty easily. Obviously, context and engagement in a lesson helps this consolidation, or “learning”. But most of us adults know you can get quick access to plenty of knowledge by reading a book on “xxx for dummies” or a quick google search. What’s more, sometimes this is more time efficient then going through a whole series of lessons on it – remember that lessons are also spread over a year (with only a few hours a week) and then broken up by holidays so there may be a lot of learning, but there is also a lot of unlearning. But simply sitting down and getting stuck into a topic in enriched condensed form can be a pretty easy way to access knowledge and do this more than effectively. Remember most educational systems test knowledge – i.e. memory and mostly relatively short-term memory of what the kids have been able to pack into their heads pre exam.

So, from this perspective, for knowledge-based learning there is some concern, but this can be brought up to speed pretty quickly. Therfore, in some areas there will need to be some catching up. However, this may depend on the subject – some subjects build on top of each other or are interconnected – these are the subject that may need to play some catch up – but teachers may find that an “executive summary” does wonders.

So far so good – with the caveat that not all kids will respond the same to this but broadly I see little need for any major concern here. But I do see concern in other areas.

What do we really learn at school?

What do we actually learn at school? Within school there are a lot of other things that happen, friendships are built, kids play together, have random ideas, dangerous ideas, try to break the rules, not get caught, find strategies to learn with the least effort, how to get through exams with the least effort, and so on and so forth.

This is normally considered the secondary impacts of schooling. I say from the brains’ perspective this is the primary learning experience in schools. All the above-mentioned tasks require extremely complex and strategic and social decision-making and are what helps us develop important skills, such as strategizing, building and managing relationships, and also helps reduce stress and build circuits that really make effective brains.

Some have said they miss being with friends and I stress it is not just missing friend, it is the whole process of friendships and how to engage that is missing. So, there is concern in those countries where children have been at home schooling for long periods of time and not because of what educational authorities consider learning, but because of the critical social learning aspects which help build healthy functional brains. What’s more the physical activity that we spoke about in this article last month (though targeted at you the adult reader) is just as true for children. The simple process of being active – walking between classrooms, carrying books, messing about during recess has hugely beneficial effects on the brain and health.

That being said I think the impacts are very varied – my daughter at the age of 14 loved lockdown – social media be thanked – she and her friends seem to be just as engaged, talkative, and creative on a group chat on social media, as us adults around a drink at a local bar. So, some of these negative impacts will be moderated by these digital kids.

Key Development phases

The one aspect I see of genuine concern is that all children go through key brain development phases broadly around 4, 8, and in adolescence. These are times of great reorganising in the brain and hence very susceptible to environmental influences, for example in adolescence the concept of building a self-identity is critical and how has this been influenced by home-schooling or lockdown? I am not sure. It is likely very contextual but a genuine cause of concern.

Let’s summarise

    • Kids under the age of 10 will have little lasting impact or lack of learning
    • Kids under the age of 10 may have missed out on critical developmental aspects of play and socialising – their brains should be plastic enough to catch up on this
    • Kids between 10-14 will likely catch up very quickly on knowledge-based learning – little concern
    • Kid between 10-14 may have missed out on some development experiences in social and interactions but have been able to compensate for some of this on digital platforms which they feel very comfortable with, nay enjoy. This could vary widely between children and context.
    • Kids leading up to critical exams will have been affected by being able to or not being able to take exams
    • Kids leading up to critical exams will likely be able to catch up on the knowledge with a few well thought through summaries and condensed reading
    • Not having been able to have had exams will be important for some children – and have missed out on a critical life experience of preparing for and coping with exams irrespective of end results
    • Adolescents may have missed out on key developmental and social learning opportunities not school related such as fully developing a sense of self identity

I stress to close that the other aspects of school are just as, or more important, than the schooling themselves when it comes to cognitive development. And yes, kids should get back to school as soon as is feasibly possible (Switzerland adopted pragmatic approach to this only closing schools through the first lockdown period but not thereafter).

Children do have plastic brains, but these do need to develop – some of this happens with school, during school, and … in spite of school


Brain Development

Blakemore, S. J. (2012). Imaging brain development: The adolescent brain. Neuroimage. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.11.080.

Blakemore, S. J., Burnett, S., and Dahl, R. E. (2010). The role of puberty in the developing adolescent brain. Hum. Brain Mapp. doi:10.1002/hbm.21052.

Blakemore, S. J. (2012). Development of the social brain in adolescence. J. R. Soc. Med. doi:10.1258/jrsm.2011.110221.

Choudhury, S., Blakemore, S. J., and Charman, T. (2006). Social cognitive development during adolescence. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. doi:10.1093/scan/nsl024.

Fuhrmann, D., Knoll, L. J., and Blakemore, S. J. (2015). Adolescence as a Sensitive Period of Brain Development. Trends Cogn. Sci. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2015.07.008.

Kilford, E. J., Garrett, E., and Blakemore, S. J. (2016). The development of social cognition in adolescence: An integrated perspective. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2016.08.016.

Knudsen, E. I. (2004). Sensitive periods in the development of the brain and behavior. J. Cogn. Neurosci. doi:10.1162/0898929042304796.

Power, J. D., Fair, D. A., Schlaggar, B. L., and Petersen, S. E. (2010). The Development of Human Functional Brain Networks. Neuron. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2010.08.017.

Sebastian, C., Burnett, S., and Blakemore, S. J. (2008). Development of the self-concept during adolescence. Trends Cogn. Sci. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2008.07.008.

Stiles, J., and Jernigan, T. L. (2010). The basics of brain development. Neuropsychol. Rev. doi:10.1007/s11065-010-9148-4.



Blakemore, S. J., and Frith, U. (2005). The learning brain: Lessons for education: a précis. Dev. Sci. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2005.00434.x.

Dorothy Bishop, Colin Blakemore, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, Brian Butterworth, U. G. (2013). Neuroscience: implications for education and lifelong learning.

Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., and Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. doi:10.1016/0885-2014(91)90049-J.

de Freitas, S., and Liarokapis, F. (2011). “Serious Games: A New Paradigm for Education?,” in Serious Games and Edutainment Applications doi:10.1007/978-1-4471-2161-9_2.

Harasim, L. (2000). Shift happens: Online education as a new paradigm in learning. Internet High. Educ. doi:10.1016/S1096-7516(00)00032-4.

Immordino-Yang, M. H., and Damasio, A. (2007). We Feel, Therefore We Learn: The Relevance of Affective and Social Neuroscience to Education. Mind, Brain, Educ. doi:10.1111/j.1751-228x.2007.00004.x.

Understanding the brain: The birth of a learning science (2007). doi:10.1787/9789264029132-en.


Play and the brain

Bateman, C., and Nacke, L. E. (2010). The neurobiology of play. in Future Play 2010: Research, Play, Share – International Academic Conference on the Future of Game Design and Technology doi:10.1145/1920778.1920780.

Pellis, S. M., Pellis, V. C., and Bell, H. C. (2010). The function of play in the development of the social brain. Am. J. Play.

Montgomery, S. H. (2014). The relationship between play, brain growth and behavioural flexibility in primates. Anim. Behav. 90, 281–286.

Siviy, S. M. (2016). A brain motivated to play: insights into the neurobiology of playfulness. Behaviour 153. doi:10.1163/1568539X-00003349.

Smith, P. K. (2009). Children and Play. doi:10.1002/9781444311006.

Shoot the Messenger

Shoot the Messenger

. . .


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Of Carrots and Sticks

Of Carrots and Sticks

Just what does motivate individuals to perform

Reading time: about 10 minutes

Over the years there have been many proposals for rewarding and punishing, or not punishing behaviours. The current trend is to nudge people in the right direction – but this fails to account for deeply inbuilt personality types and subsequent different brain functioning. Let’s review how rewards and punishment drive motivation and behaviour.

motivation brain

Old logic sees punishment as motivation. Good ‘ole school systems used this: strict rules and give anyone who diverges of the righteous path a good beating. That will see them right. I grew up in Britain which still had the cane (a thin stick) as a punishment in schools – it was finally abolished when I was 14, but not after my brother and been given a good whipping at school. To be honest that didn’t bother him so much, it was a badge of honour in a boy’s school – the proverbial beating my mother gave him was much worse (she was a teacher to boot).

So, we see this pattern in society of severe punishment and this has slowly moderated over the centuries and recent decades. Now governments are using nudges and rewards to get people to behave in the right way. David Rock well known for coining term, neuroleadership, claims reward is the only path forward. Smacks of operant conditioning to me – was Skinner right all along? Doubtful – the brain, as always, will give us some answers.

The answers we need to first ask is that of motivation itself – if reward and punishment are seen as the means to an end i.e. a positive or effective behaviour, then we need to understand how the brain gets itself motivated. The research into motivation is long and complex and will break your patience for the moment, and break the page count for this issue, as interested as you may be. Short advertising interlude: We do give a short but comprehensive overview in our Brain and Behaviour Online courses. Interlude finished. Motivational research can be broken down into what (content theories) and how (process theories). But of most interest to us is the concept of approach and avoidance.

Approach and Avoidance

These are two motivational patterns well researched but of critical significance and still somewhat underrated in motivational research. Indeed, Elliot and Covington noted in an excellent, and still relevant, 2001 review that:

“… it is clear that the distinction between approach and avoidance motivation has deep and widespread intellectual roots, represents a part of the evolutionary heritage that humans share with organisms across the phylogenetic spectrum, is instigated immediately and automatically in response to most if not all stimuli humans encounter, is grounded in the basic neuroanatomical structures of the brain, and concords with the intuitively based knowledge of how humans are motivated in their daily lives.”

And go on to state:

“As such it is surprising that in much contemporary empirical and theoretical work on motivational issues, the approach-avoidance distinction is either overshadowed or overlooked altogether.”

To clarify, approach motivation is about moving towards, to achieve, to get something, and is reward driven. In our analogy it is the carrot. Avoidance motivation is about moving away from, protecting or fighting, it is the fear-based aversive form of motivation. In our analogy the stick – avoidance of punishment.

These two operate often in tandem – consider sporting teams who have a desire to win but also a desire not to lose. Both motivational directions are present. There is a tendency to see one as better than the other, but the fact remains that these are naturally present in all living organisms, so it is hard to justify one as being better than another – they are effective survival strategies which have been effective since the beginning of life and enabled all life forms to successfully propagate across the planet.

So now we have the motivational terminology for our carrots and sticks: approach and avoidance, let’s take a dive into the brain and see what this says about these forms of motivation before reviewing what this means for individuals, teams, and motivational strategies in, and out, of the workplace.

The Brain and Approach/Avoidance

Research and brain scanning has shown approach is related to reward centres in the brain and avoidance is associated with fear/ threat mechanisms:

motivation brain

Regions for approach in green, avoidance in red, and both in pink

  • Approach: ventral striatum (reward)
  • Avoidance: amygdala, thalamus, insula (fear & threat)

Aupperle & Paulus in 2010 showed that the orbitofrontal cortex is involved with balancing these inputs. No surprise as the orbitofrontal is considered one of the main decision-making centres particularly for those decisions with emotional input.

  • Orbital frontal cortex as decision making with inputs from ventral striatum modulating approach and inputs from Amygdala and Insula modulating avoidance
  • Dysfunction of respective networks could predict susceptibility to specific anxiety disorders

Spielberg et al. in 2009 found that there were hierarchical networks to do with planning and carrying out strategies and that these were hemisphere dependent. Planning being further forward in the brain – which would be expected as a more “frontal” function.

  • Hierarchical networks
  • System input from limbic regions and strategic integration at cortical levels
  • Left frontal processes achieve goals / right frontal avoidance goals
motivation brain

Hierarchical processing for approach in left hemisphere and avoidance in right hemisphere

So far so good. We can see that approach motivation is reward driven and related to reward centres in the brain, and that avoidance motivation is fear and threat driven, and related to respective centres in the brain. We can also see that for planning and implementation these use different centres in the brain, and these are located in the left hemispheres for approach strategizing and the right for avoidance strategizing and planning. One side effect of this different processing in different centres is that this can cause motivational conflict – reward centres may need to fight it out with fear centres and approach and avoidance strategies can both be present in both our hemispheres. This is something we all have experienced – that tough decision when we are not sure if the upsides outweigh the downsides. This is our orbitofrontal cortex working hard and trying to figure out which one to choose.

What is also clear is that they both are natural mechanisms which are present to some degree in all human beings. But the question you may want an answer to is do these differ in human beings and if so how?


The short answer is, of course. These can be considered personality traits as much as evolutionary-based strategies. Some people will be more avoidance focused and others more approach focused. In personality this was first ascribed to the concept of extraversion and introversion particularly in social contexts. The extravert attracted towards, approach, social stimuli, and the introvert, avoiding social stimuli. Extraverts are also more sensation seeking, attracted to more stimuli. Similarly, sensitivity people, previously called neurotics, tend to avoid stimuli and are more anxious, that is avoidant.

We have reviewed these personality traits to build our Human Behavioural Framework, and this is another discussion for another day, but of interest are the psychometric scales designed to measure specifically measure approach and avoidance. The best known of these is the Behavioural Activation System and Behavioural Inhibition System Scale (BIS/BAS) developed by Carver at the University of Miami. These therefore measure trait approach/avoidance rather than strategic or situational approach or avoidance.

The research shows that there are three subgroups of approach motivation:

    1. Drive – achievement focus
    2. Fun
    3. Reward sensitivity

But now back to the workplace and the question of carrots and sticks. What does this tell us about reward and punishment? Firstly, it says that different individuals will respond and be motivated by different stimuli. Those high on BAS will respond stronger to rewards and stimulation. Those higher in BIS respond stronger to sticks. Though this may sound like I am suggesting that we just threaten and beat those high on traits BIS this is not true. These people will respond and do respond and see the downside or risk whether you like it or not. Interestingly they also respond strongly, according to other research, to safety – these are the people who need high safety to perform best because their threat-based systems, though causing action, will not enable them to function to their best.

No surprise that we come back to the concept of psychological safety that we have spoken about in other articles. The other important point being that those higher on BIS will not respond strongly to rewards – carrots don’t work as well with these people.

This points therefore to a more refined strategy of motivating individuals. Or rather the concepts of carrots and sticks works on average across a large population group because in a large population group there will likely be a balance of those more driven by reward and those more driven by inhibition. But the problem is that there will be large variations between individuals. This is therefore why knowing your people is critical to getting the highest performance.

Approach individuals, driven by reward and achievement, work well with stretch goals, rewards of different types, are not so fearful and so can manage pressure well.

fear motivation brain

Pictures like this have been shown to activate threat centres in the brain.

This simply means that team leaders will need to understand the individuals in their team to get the best out of them. Indeed, in our model of leadership this is precisely the role of the team leader – to understand the individuals in the team and to get the best out of them. This may mean taking a different approach with different individuals. Giving the sensitive individual safety, and giving the achievement individuals stretch, and some pressure, but appreciating them both, and managing effectively the contribution of all (see our article on Issue 2021-01 on team performance).Avoidance individuals, driven by fear and safety, work better in safe environments, are driven by fear but this can cause high anxiety and disruptions. They are less responsive to rewards.

A final note is that of short-term reward and short-term punishment. Short-term spontaneous rewards are very activating for the brain reward system. It’s simply an expectation thing – if you have an expected reward the brain responds very weakly to the reward – if you get an unexpected reward the brain responds very highly because it’s a surprise. So small, unexpected rewards are highly effective means of creating positive motivating effects. In financial terms a few small $50 rewards can be more effective than a yearly expected $5’000 reward – surprising but true. So spread your carrots out.

In contrast, short-term spontaneous punishment creates disruption, feelings of unfairness (which are very powerful in terms of motivation – equity theory), and disrupts orientation mechanisms. Punishment has to be clear: what it is for, why, and dealt out fairly. Simply put, there should, and must be, consequences to bad behaviour and violations of norms. But these should be rare – the punishment framework is a set of guidelines that people should avoid.

Psychological (and biological) punishment

Punishment from the brain’s perspective, however, comes in others forms, namely that of needs violation. Those of you inducted into SCOAP know that these five needs of Self-esteem, Control, Orientation, Attachment, and Pleasure form the basis of human beings. Leaders and those in authority often punish not intentionally, but often inadvertently in the form of needs violations: over criticism, putting people down, taking away control, or minimising pleasure. These are all actions that can be considered punishment from the brain’s perspective but are often not considered “formal” punishment. The seriousness of needs violation is supported by well-documented biological impacts, the first of which is increased stress, cortisol release (and whole set of behavioural changes and limitation of cognitive abilities), and the worst of which, over time, and if severe enough, are disrupted neuronal growth, and destruction of brain matter.

When I speak to business leaders about this they feel that they can no longer criticise people – I stress this is not about not focusing on performance issues. If someone underperforms, inform them quickly, respectfully, on precisely what, and enable them to perform better next time. Note, in addition, that some research has shown that confident people respond well to positive feedback but minimise negative feedback. Alternately those lower in confidence focus more on the negative feedback intended or not. That could be the subject for another article. This means that you may need to rebalance your feedback to individuals depending on their confidence and self-esteem ratings.

Stretch as a better predictor?

In developing our Human Behavioural Framework, we included many aspects – but as proposed by Carver, we see Behavioural Activation and Behavioural Inhibition as foundational personality traits that guide a lot of human behaviour. We therefore measure BAS/BIS using items from the BAS/BIS scale. This is not the same as the way we measured emotional responses to needs in the SCOAP-Profile as outlined above.

In a group of high-performing teachers one of the best predictors was not the height of these scales but the relationship. So, if BAS was higher than BIS it was a strong indicator of higher performance. These high-performing teachers were therefore less worried about negative affects, making mistakes, or failing. This is a similar pattern that we noticed in the corporate space also.

However, what is striking, and probably unsurprising, is the difference between start-ups and corporate leaders. We have a good set of data from startup founders and see that they are off the scale when to comes to BAS vs BIS. Their BAS ratings are very high, their BIS ratings are very low. Compare this to corporate leaders and we see these two converging – or even being reversed. This is interesting because some of these corporate leaders also claim to be “entrepreneurial” and suggest that their people or organisations should be more “entrepreneurial”.

 We therefore compare these two ratings together because this is more predictive and call this “Stretch”. This is more predictive of performance we see but also of agile mindsets as outlined in article on agility.


Let’s summarise

Carrots – reward

  • Small spontaneous rewards are very effective and underused in the corporate world
  • Reward is particularly motivating for BAS (achievement focused individuals)
  • Emotional needs fulfilment is the most critical aspect of deep reward (Self-Esteem, Control, Orientation, Attachment, and Pleasure). So, doing more of the cheap but important stuff like showing appreciation is more important than many assume.
  • Large short-term rewards can increase stress and therefore decrease performance.
  • Large long-term rewards with enough planning and preparation time normally increases quality and motivation.
  • Creating a safe environment is critical for everyone but particularly for BIS (inhibition focused) individuals.
  • A safe environment means a place where everyone can fulfil their needs, not feel threatened, and not have their needs violated or damaged by other team members.

Sticks – punishment

  • Rather than punishment, think of requirements and guidelines
  • Bad behaviour must be dealt with immediately and fairly
  • Bad performance requires clear immediate feedback and enablement. Criticize the task and not the person.
  • With confident people, they will minimize the negative feedback and focus on the positive (you may need to re-address the balance).
  • Less confident people will maximise the negative feedback, and minimise positive. Focus on task and enabling the person.
  • Short-term threats increase stress and reduce cognitive ability and normally reduce performance
  • Shock effects only work when everyone has become complacent (how did you let it get this way in the first place?).
  • Be careful of inadvertently punishing people by violating their SCOAP needs.

So, in short, the answer is, as usual, there is a bit of truth in the classic statement of using carrots and sticks but a careful review shows why and in what people. In team leadership it is therefore critical to know your people to enable high performance in the whole team. Carrots do work for the right people and some carrots are surprisingly effective but underused – the spontaneous small reward. Similarly, we should not think of punishing people but creating the guidelines for accepted behaviour and respond swiftly and appropriately when this is crossed – when it comes to performance issues, similarly a swift response, respecting the person and enabling high performance is critical. So, let’s call it carrots, fulfilling needs, and guidance

Relationship of BIS and BAS as a predictor of performance

When we first developed the SCOAP profile, we measured how much of something an individual wanted (in the SCOAP -Profile, the fulfilment of needs) and how negatively they responded to violation of a need. We initially predicated that high performers would be high on achievement (i.e. approach motivation or BAS). But we found that they were high on both. This indicates a high desire to win but a high desire not to lose at the same time. There are therefore two motivational drives that are guiding motivation.

When we compared this to a group of producers in a larger company, we saw significant differences in intensity of motivation and also height of both positive and negative – in fact standard or lower performers had a lower response to the negative. This could also be learned helplessness i.e. just being used to negativity.


Approach / Avoidance

Aupperle, R. L., and Paulus, M. P. (2010). Neural systems underlying approach and avoidance in anxiety disorders. Dialogues Clin. Neurosci. 12, 517–31.

Bartels, J. M., and Magun-Jackson, S. (2009). Approach-avoidance motivation and metacognitive self-regulation: The role of need for achievement and fear of failure. Learn. Individ. Differ. 19. doi:10.1016/j.lindif.2009.03.008.

Carver, C. S. (2006). Approach, avoidance, and the self-regulation of affect and action. Motiv. Emot. 30, 105–110.

Corr, P. J., and McNaughton, N. (2012). Neuroscience and approach/avoidance personality traits: a two stage (valuation-motivation) approach. Neurosci. Biobehav. Rev. 36, 2339–54. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.09.013.

Elliot, A. J., and Covington, M. V. (2001). Approach and Avoidance Motivation. Educ. Psychol. Rev. 13, 73–92.

Elliot, A. J. (2006). The Hierarchical Model of Approach-Avoidance Motivation. Motiv. Emot. 30, 111–116. doi:10.1007/s11031-006-9028-7.

Hamamura, T., and Heine, S. J. (2008). “Approach and avoidance motivation across cultures.,” in Handbook of approach and avoidance motivation, 557–570.

Spielberg, J. M., Miller, G. A., Warren, S. L., Engels, A. S., Crocker, L. D., Banich, M. T., et al. (2012). A brain network instantiating approach and avoidance motivation. Psychophysiology 49, 1200–1214.

Terry, W. S. (2010). A Demonstration of Approach and Avoidance Conflicts. Teach. Psychol. 37, 132–134. doi:10.1080/00986281003626888.


Reward Punishment

Fischbacher, U., Treyer, V., Schellhammer, M., Schnyder, U., Buck, A., and Fehr, E. (2009). Neuroscience: The Neural Basis of Altruistic Punishment. Science (80-. ). 305, 1254–1257.

Knoch, D., Gianotti, L. R., Baumgartner, T., and Fehr, E. (2010). A Neural Marker of Costly Punishment Behavior. Psychol. Sci. 21, 337–342.

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And again: Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection

This is the title of a 2020 paper relating cognitive reflection to other personality traits. This is well worth a read, but they measure multiple forms of cognition, reflection, various forms of narcissism, impulsiveness, and overconfidence. The big take away though was that those high in grandiose narcissism, claim to enjoy engaging in cognitive tasks, but are massively high on overconfidence, and show lower reflective abilities and insight.

So those arrogant individuals who have a high regard for themselves and their superiority will tend to fall into thinking traps more often but be overconfident in their abilities to avoid them and be unable to acknowledge and think through how they could have made a better decision. Many people in business reading this will be slowly nodding their heads having come across many people like this…

Littrell, S., Fugelsang, J., and Risko, E. F. (2020). Overconfidently underthinking: narcissism negatively predicts cognitive reflection. Think. Reason. doi:10.1080/13546783.2019.1633404.