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  • What works best for encouraging positive human behavior, the carrot or the stick? The threat of punishment or the promise of a reward? Heaven or hell?

    Before dismissing this as another one of those academic questions that is volleyed between the warm and fuzzy navel-gazers and the hard-core, bottom-liners, there is a good argument to be made that this answer provides a philosophical foundation that fundamentally affects society. What factors keep chaos at bay?

    Since the time when the human brain developed and groups of people realized the benefits of living in communities, great pains have been taken to formulate rules which encourage fair treatment for everyone. Unfortunately, even after thousands of years of enlightenment, the more powerful (originally in terms of size and more recently in terms wealth) members of society enjoy unfair advantages. Orwell was not kidding when he opined that “some animals are more equal than others.”

    This state of practical inequity, as opposed to the idyllic equality, makes the formulation of rules – laws, accepted ethical behavior, common decency - even more important. Some are more powerful, smarter, richer, prettier or more famous than others, but most agree that this should not allow them the right to run roughshod over everyone else.

    This brings us back to which philosophy better encourages proper, ethical behavior? Some recent research has uncovered empirical data on the effectiveness of the promise of heaven versus that of hell.

    The Judeo-Christian myth of hell, which was brilliantly promulgated by that “Italian poet from the 16th Century” that Bob Dylan wrote and sang about, has fascinated both savants and lunatics. From Dante and Sartre’ to the homeless junkies forced to listen to a sermon before getting a meal, we all have various degrees of concern about possibility of burning in hell and having “No Exit.”

    However, the big question is this. Is this threat of eternal damnation, in a hot miserable furnace, surrounded by everyone and everything that you hated in your life, more effective than the promise of everlasting reward where the streets are paved with gold and there are nothing but good times and fascinating people to talk to?

    As it turns out, some psychological research strongly suggests that the threat of hell is a stronger divine deterrent than the rewards of heaven. All of you warm and fuzzy types, with your incentive-based theories can just stop singing Kumbaya right now and listen up!

    Azim Shariff, a professor of psychology and the director of Culture and Morality Lab at the University of Oregon, published his results in The Public Library of Science Journal “PLoS ONE.” His key finding was that a nation’s rate of belief in hell predicts a lower crime rate, but the nation’s rate of belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates. This comes on the heels of other research at Harvard University by Robert Barro and Rachel McCleary that found that the gross domestic product was higher in developed countries when people believed in hell more than they did in heaven. One must assume that people are more productive and work harder if they are worried about eternal damnation.

    To the layman, this seems to suggest that anyone who doesn’t believe that they will be punished in the afterlife will simply say “screw it,” or something more colorful, and carry on their own nefarious agenda, casually conducting unethical and no doubt mean-spirited activities, right and left. As the good professor noted, without the threat of hell, there is less of a “divine deterrent.”

    Does this mean that those of us who favor positive reinforcement rather than threats of violence will have to reconsider our approach to life? Perhaps. However, another conclusion is one that insurance companies have exploited for centuries: Fear, either real or imagined, is a powerful motivator.

    Photo from Flickr Creative Commons : Saxon

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