People who are angry pay more attention to rewards than threats is the headline of a report describing a new study:

Anger is a negative emotion. But, like being happy or excited, feeling angry makes people want to seek rewards, according to a new study of emotion and visual attention. The researchers found that people who are angry pay more attention to rewards than to threats—the opposite of people feeling other negative emotions like fear.

Whenever I have a disruptive student in class, a “threat” might “work” to get him/her to stop their disruptive behavior. More often than not, however, it either results in no positive change (and often a change for the worse), very short-term change (they calm down for a few minutes and then start right back up again), or they might not be disruptive but they are clearly not focused on learning anything.

On the other hand, the vast majority of time when I approach them positively — reminding them that by focusing they can meet their goals, that I know they are not acting like the kid of person they really are, that I want to be able to give them an “A” in class — the disruptive behavior stops and they get focused on learning.

It is hard to keep that in mind in the moment when every bone in a teacher’s body wants to punish the student immediately, but it’s worth the restraint (which most of the time, though not all of the time, I’m able to exhibit).

After class, and after the student has shown the responsible behavior that he is capable of doing, is when I talk to them about the inappropriate behavior. In the moment, I just want him/her to get back to work.

Have you had similar experiences?

I’m adding this post to My Best Posts On Classroom Management.

UPDATE: Chris Wejr has asked an excellent question in the comments section: Hey Larry, aren’t rewards and threats both extrinsic, short-term solutions? How do we get students to make decisions that intrinsically motivate them to focus on learning?

Here is what I wrote in response:


Great question!

I am very committed to helping students develop their own intrinsic motivation, and have often written about what I do to help make that happen (
I have found, however, that for some students at some times it is not effective. Daniel Pink and others have found that rewards can work to get people focused on doing work that requires little cognitive energy. There are times in the classroom when I just need to get a student to calm down and not be disruptive at that moment, and the kind of positive feedback I describe in this post has worked for me. Afterwards, when he/she has calmed down, we discuss if being disruptive really helped him/her get what she wanted and explore future alternatives.