• Person responsible for the wording of this article: KARASAWA Kaori (Social psychology)
    Professor, Graduate School of Humanities and Sociology, The University of Tokyo

Science and technology (S&T) in modern society serves to provide solutions to a variety of social issues. Some familiar examples that come to mind are the use of S&T to address energy depletion, global environmental degradation, and natural disasters, as well as to help resolve economic and social inequalities and, in recent years, to contain infectious diseases as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was immense. However, S&T alone cannot solve these issues. Even if we implement outstanding technologies, our society will still fall apart if people continue to act selfishly based on their own wants and desires. For example, even if we develop energy-efficient electronic appliances and temperature management system for residences, this will not able to stop environmental deterioration if users take these for granted and cease to care about saving energy while seeking only their own comfort. If we are to implement what has been achieved by S&T to not only resolve these problems but to also help create a better society, we also need to accept interventions that changes our behavior.

Such interventions can be taken in a variety of ways, but the most common method would be to use reward and punishment. This is a framework in which rewards such as points, discounts, and credits are provided to encourage desired activities, and punishments such as monetary penalties or reputational damage are meted out to deter unwanted behaviors. Naturally, the manner of putting such rewards and punishments into practice is a topic of ELSI research, and one that would require a discussion of greater depth based on knowledge gathered from diverse disciplines. As one example, I would point to the pitfalls that exist in using rewards and punishments as an effective tool for controlling behavior. This is related to how the mind works and the thinking that underlies our behaviors. For example, let us assume that we developed a system for encouraging a desired behavior by utilizing S&T to monitor human activities in a more accurate manner and at lower cost than would be possible if performed by human operators, and thereby hands out rewards or penalties based on the monitored activities. Such a system would likely have the benefit of drawing out the desired actions. But, on the other hand, it would strip away the inherent significance of such activities, such as the element of fun or the ethical values that are associated with them, and may even inhibit us from performing such activities autonomously.

What motivates our behaviors can largely be separated into intrinsic motivations and extrinsic motivations. Major intrinsic motivations are the drivers of our behaviors that arise from within ourselves—such as our personal preferences or the enjoyment or sense of importance we gain from doing them as well as the ethical views that we subscribe to-and are related to behaviors that we perform autonomously. Meanwhile, rewards and punishments are major extrinsic motivations, and are related to heteronomous behaviors that come from monetary rewards, points, penalties, and social pressure.

So then, what would happen if we were to control people's behaviors through extrinsic motivations, such as by implementing a system of giving points or punishments? I would like to focus here on the human characteristic of being liable to give in to explanations that are simple and easy to comprehend. Once a plausible reason is found, people have a tendency to not bother to look for any other reason, even in reference to their own actions. Rewards and punishments stand out as explanations for their actions (which is also why they are so effective), and thus, people will readily accept them as being the reason for their actions. Even if that action is something that is inherently fun or that matches their own ethical views, once rewards or punishments are given, people start thinking that the action was taken because of that reward (or punishment). The self-cognition that says "I am taking this action because of punishments or rewards" drives out the self-cognition that says "I am taking this action for fun or because of my ethical views." Moreover, the existence of the reward/punishment dynamic weakens the belief that the action itself has value as being something that is fun or ethical. Many people have the experience of no longer enjoying something once that activity is done for money-this is a similar phenomenon.

We cannot deny that rewards and punishments have a strong effect in controlling actions, and that social order is maintained through having people adopt "decent" behavior by reinforcing such actions through rewards and punishments. The moral views and noble causes that people intrinsically hold and believe in also have the power to govern their behavior, but if we tried to rely on this factor alone, our resources would likely be completely eaten up by (the small number of) selfish individuals, plunging our society into a situation where justice cannot be preserved. This leads us to conclude that it would be difficult to implement S&T geared toward behavior control that is removed from the framework of reward and punishment. But this is all the more reason why we need to thoroughly study how such rewards and punishments affect the intrinsic motivations for a behavior, the value that the behavior produces such as the element of fun, and the individual's ethical views and philosophies that have the innate power to control the behavior. It is essential that we use such studies to guide the design of a system that makes proper use of reward and punishment while giving consideration to achieving a good balance between autonomous and heteronomous means of controlling human behaviors.

March, 2022

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