Positive Change Through Rewarding Virtue vs. Punishing Non-Compliance


Men have made millions of laws to punish crimes, and they have not established even one to reward virtue; Virtue being a product not of the command of law, but of our own free will, society has no right whatsoever over it. Virtue on no account enters into the social contract; and if it remains without reward, society commits an injustice similar to that of one who defrauds another of his labor.

Dragonetti (1766)


Moments of instability bear the opportunity for change, and leadership determines whether it be a breakdown or breakthrough [1]. Many institutional environments experience turning points through “critical actors” rather than through “critical masses” [2]. To gain acceptance for change, leaders use different types of power, e.g., coercion, punishment, reward, legitimation, and expert information [3]; [4]. In contrast, to incentivize change through fear, dissatisfaction, or guilt [5], reward power is to offer a positive motivation in case of compliance, e.g., an increase in salary, a career promotion, or other privileges [4]. In the study of coach-athlete relationships, rewards and not punitive methods have shown positive effects on the athletes’ behaviors [6].

Dragonetti, an old Neapolitan economist, more than 250 years ago stated that “Men have made millions of laws to punish crimes, and they have not established even one to reward virtue [7]” [8]. Indeed, a system more based on incentives, e.g., in the form of intrinsic societal awards, would foster more cooperation with economic and civic benefits [8]. This may be required today more than ever. Longitudinal research found that as a result of modernization and westernization, mothers in San Vicente, Mexico, developed more self-promoting behavior at the cost of a more giving and rewarding (e.g., including encouraging failures) attitude only forty years ago [9].

Monetary compensation, social status, or ideological values all may provide for reward [10]. Equating satisfaction with perception minus expectation, unexpected rewards can impact individuals’ satisfaction disproportionately and therefore, motivate change [11]. Contingent rewards have proven to be an effective change leadership tool. However, it was also found that rewards need to be specified according to the situation respectively to the field of interest [12]. Strategic alignment of changes and related rewards is essential to create clear psychological contracts that define well what contributions to company performance the employees owe their employer and what they can hope for in return [13]. Of course, it is foolish to incentivize something and expect something else in return [14].

Because not all change is of equal ease to everybody, change efforts rather than change expertise/effectiveness should be rewarded [15]. Not only reward size, but also the sequence and frequency of incentivizing are influencing the future expectancy of further rewards in social-change theories [16]. Age may also be a factor for reward-sensitivity, as, for example, adolescents with typically lower inhibitory control capability attribute more value to reward [17]. In conclusion, the focus on rewarding desired behavior rather than punishing unwanted conduct might have several advantages, such as creating positive feelings, increasing acceptance of positive change, and enabling higher likability of the influencing change agents [4].


[1] Goleman, D., Barlow, Z., & Bennett, L. (2010). Forging New Norms in New Orleans: From Emotional to Ecological Intelligence. Teacher Education Quarterly, 37(4), 87-98.

[2] Helitzer, D. L., Newbill, S. L., Cardinali, G., Morahan, P. S., Chang, S., & Magrane, D. (2017). Changing the Culture of Academic Medicine: Critical Mass or Critical Actors?. Journal Of Women’s Health (15409996), 26(5), 540. doi:10.1089/jwh.2016.6019

[3] Richardson, R. C., & Evans, E. T. (1997). Options for Managing Student Behavior: Adaptations for Individual Needs.

[4] Raven, B. (2008). The bases of power and the Power/Interaction Model of Interpersonal Influence. Analyses Of Social Issues & Public Policy, 8(1), 1-22.

[5] Schein, E. H. (2014). Organisational culture and leadership (4th ed.). John Wiley & Sons Ltd. Jossey-Bass: San Francisco.

[6] Stenling, A. (2016). Sports coaches’ interpersonal motivating styles: longitudinal associations, change, and multidimensionality.

[7] Dragonetti, G. (1766) Delle virtu’ e dei premi, Napoli.

[8] Bruni, L., Panebianco, F., & Smerilli, A. (2014). Beyond Carrots and Sticks: How Cooperation and Its Rewards Evolve Together. Review Of Social Economy, 72(1), 55-82.

[9] Garcia, C., Greenfield, P. M., Montiel-Acevedo, D., Vidaña-Rivera, T., & Colorado, J. (2017). Implications of 43 Years of Sociodemographic Change in Mexico for the Socialization of Achievement Behavior: Two Quasi-Experiments. Journal Of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 48(4), 611-619. doi:10.1177/0022022117698573

[10] Van de Rijt, A., Kang, S. M., Restivo, M., & Patil, A. (2014). Field experiments of success-breeds-success dynamics. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences Of The United States Of America, 111(19), 6934-6939. doi:10.1073/pnas.1316836111

[11] Aiken, C., & Keller, S. (2009). The irrational side of change management. Mckinsey Quarterly, (2), 100-109.

[12] Richter, A., von Thiele Schwarz, U., Lornudd, C., Lundmark, R., Mosson, R., & Hasson, H. (2016). iLead-a transformational leadership intervention to train healthcare managers’ implementation leadership. Implementation Science, 111-13. doi:10.1186/s13012-016-0475-6

[13] McDermott, A. M., Conway, E., Rousseau, D. M., & Flood, P. C. (2013). Promoting Effective Psychological Contracts Through Leadership: The Missing Link Between HR Strategy and Performance. Human Resource Management, 52(2), 289. doi:10.1002/hrm.21529

[14] DuBois, C. Z., & Dubois, D. A. (2012). Strategic HRM as social design for environmental sustainability in organization. Human Resource Management, 51(6), 799. doi:10.1002/hrm.21504

[15] Cappelen, A. W., & Tungodden, B. (2003). Reward and Responsibility: How Should We Be Affected When Others Change Their Effort?. Politics, Philosophy And Economics, 2(2), 191-211.

[16] Lao, R. C., & Llorca, A. L. (1982). THE EFFECT OF SEQUENCE AND SIZE OF REWARD ON EXPECTANCY. Journal Of Social Psychology, 117(1), 93.

[17] Walker, D. M., Bell, M. R., Flores, C., Gulley, J. M., Willing, J., & Paul, M. J. (2017). Adolescence and Reward: Making Sense of Neural and Behavioral Changes Amid the Chaos. Journal Of Neuroscience, 37(45), 10855-10866.


  • Virtue in itself is its own reward. One cannot put a price on such a characteristic. The good feeling inside your own heart should be suffice, if the heart is indeed good. In fact, most who act on morally good conduct do not expect anything in return. When a thank you is no longer considered a reward in itself, we as a society would be in grave danger. Food for thought. Debating in a healthy manner opens the mind to many perspectives and each decides for oneself where they stand. Well written piece. But all accounts should be measured, but in this case, what would you measure by?

    • Very important addition, thank you!
      Virtue may show in many ways. However, I found basically three dimensions, which constitute the foundation of my view and the happy, colorful growth (this blog’s) perspective too:-): (1) knowing one’s divine origin, (2) non-transactional current relationships, and (3) altruistic service for the next generations. This creates and leaves enough for all, unnecessary to measure everything as meticulously as today.
      You are right, saying “thank you” is vital for people who attribute value to it. However, our competitive education and value-system do, as a tendency, consider thankfulness and humility as a weakness. There is need to follow through on virtue so that it becomes a contagious, rewarding and therefore self-reinforcing (self-)leadership strength.
      Nowadays, to come back to your words, I think indeed our society is in some more serious danger. Let’s take it as an opportunity though:-).
      Happy to know your thoughts. Take care.

    • We ARE a society in grave danger. Virtue itself SHOULD be a reward and just the fact that we shouldn’t seek anything in return sounds nice, but it isn’t reality. People crave to hear about the worst in people and the horrible things that happen. It sells.

      • Exactly. Great example. Thanks for adding that. Humor can be a mind-opener and -shifter for many different topics, indeed.

        Thank you. Good observation, unfortunately often true. Too many people assume a ‘deficiency perspective’ (looking at things to fix through suffering) instead of a ‘growth perspective’ (opportunities to develop and grow through joy). These mindsets are learned. I’m always learning too, why my blog reminds me to keep a ‘happy colorful growth’ mindset:-). Thanks again for adding to this!!!

  • good point: “it is foolish to incentivize something and expect something else in return”. in our society obviously the incentives lead to a lot of negative outcomes. so to change the paradigm of rewards could be a promising approach.

  • I think you’re on to something really important here. Shaming and punishing and shunning are too common, in my experience, in a variety of circles that are trying to accomplish positive change. I’ve been thinking that what we really need are a a few models, of different shapes and sizes for different purposes or groups, of what virtue looks like. It seems (at a cursory first glance) that more the Right have this; I am an activist working on the Left for steps toward a cooperative economic model, and I really want to get people talking about this somehow.

    • discussion point. Much appreciated.
      I understand what you mean. I think that because people fear, they separate, exclude, without bad intentions, but to protect themselves seemingly. We need to intentionally and courageously forget about the smartness proposed by the Left, wrong, just, and Right. Only kindness is including all in change, which is my definition of positive change!
      All the best!

  • Excellent post. 🙂 Dragonetti was a wise person. Modern society has a lot to learn from his writings. Hopefully, many people will be open to it.

    Modern Capitalism is a tremendous structure built on punishing creativity and compassion while rewarding greed, obedience, suspicion and exclusivity. It’s sad that so few people understand this. Making the writings of wise and compassionate people will help us evolve into a civilized society.

    Thank you for doing an amazing job in this necessary endeavor.

    • I agree that (ancient) wisdom can help us a lot. Sometimes people believe more in ‘legends’ than living sages:-). Thank you for your encouraging words and support!

  • Key thing for me is indeed the awareness of the uniqueness of people and thus of their willingness and capability to change. Either via ‘negative’ or positive motivating methods, there is, to me, also the need to be careful and aware of the fine line of manipulation.

    • You’re right, Patty, these are important considerations. Thanks for sharing! I think though that external pressure from “punishment” is inherently more manipulative than incentives for healthy self-motivation. However, introducing bias, distraction, and addiction in seemingly positive rewards would be manipulative too, indeed.