Reward and punishment

A part of the brain called the basal ganglia contains the so-called reward center or pleasure center: the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine is produced, a substance that provides a pleasant feeling. The nucleus accumbens has many connections with emotional areas in the frontal cortex. The nucleus accumbens not only responds when the reward arrives, but also responds to the expectation of a reward. This brain area is therefore also very important in assessing risks, where the expected reward can sometimes win out over the analysis of possible danger. The brains of adolescents are extra sensitive to dopamine, the neurotransmitter that plays a role in activating the reward circuit. Research shows that adolescents show more activity in the nucleus accumbens than adults when anticipating a reward and therefore react more intensely to a possible reward. They also react more strongly if an activity fails and the reward is not forthcoming. Adolescents also show more activity in the so-called orbitofrontal cortex. A brain area that is important for forming emotional connections with other areas and can therefore control behavior that can lead to a reward. Adults, on the other hand, show more activity in the amygdala, the structure that activates areas of the brain that put the body on alert. They also show more activity in the prefrontal cortex, the control area important for considering long-term consequences of behavior. The nucleus accumbens and amygdala, unlike the frontal cortex, are very sensitive to hormonal changes. These emotional brain areas are therefore strongly influenced by the changes during puberty. In young children, who have not yet reached puberty, the frontal cortex does not yet work very well, but their emotional brain areas are still calm. They are therefore less inclined to seek out risky situations. Moreover, they look more to their parents when considering whether a situation is dangerous or not. During puberty this system is thrown out of balance.

While the emotional brain areas become extra stimulated and extra sensitive, the frontal cortex is far from fully developed and is therefore not yet able to manage the extra sensitivity as a control system.


A group of third-year students goes on a three-day school trip to the Ardennes. A few guys decide to bring duk tape, tye rips, scissors converted into a knife, and even a taser. The guys who take these things obviously know very well that they are doing absolutely wrong. They tweet to each other that they are taking the stuff with them to tie up other students and scare them with the knife and the taser. Already on the way there, other students find out that they have a knife and a taser with them. However, they don't say anything to the management. They don't want to be traitors and are also afraid of the boys' repercussions. Things go wrong the first night. A number of boys are tied to their beds with tape and tye rips and the taser is fired near their faces. The knife is stabbed into a girl's mattress from below. Throughout the whole incident, the boy who took the taser and the knife shows that he knows that a taser is very dangerous. He even bluffs that if you press the taser on someone's chest, the person can die. Yet, despite the risks of injuring others, he threatens the other boys with the taser. The supervising teachers find out what happened and once back at school, the perpetrators are severely punished. They say it was all a joke. They did it for kicks. They participated because their friends were participating and they didn't want to be left out of the group. Even one of the victims later said that it was all a joke and that it was not meant in a bad way at all. Why did the friends of the boy with the taser, but also other students in the group, who knew that one of the boys had a taser with him, did not sound the alarm. They knew they were playing a dangerous game? One explanation is that the boys had no insight into a very basic moral value: respect for life. However, that would mean that we are dealing here with a group of psychopaths with a serious lack of moral insight and empathy. That's not very likely. Moreover, this kind of behavior is not that unusual at all. First of all, it involved a group of adolescents.

In the eyes of these guys, the reward, the thrill you get and the appreciation from your friends, is greater than the danger involved. Adolescents attach much more importance to the opinions and appreciation of friends than to adults. Second, their moral choices were made not on the basis of reasoning but on the basis of moral intuition. The moral rules within the group weigh most heavily: you don't click and the reciprocity if I don't say anything, then you don't say anything either, counts much more than the realization that this "game" could end badly. Thirdly, the actions were not only seen as a threat but mainly as a game. It was just a joke. The language in the tweets, which the perpetrators sent to each other both before and after, shows a total insensitivity to the consequences of their plans for themselves, but also for their victims. They knew a taser was dangerous, but they still took it and used it. It's cool. It gives a kick and earns admiration from peers who are important to the perpetrators. “He dares to do that.” There also appeared to be no feeling for the fear they caused their victims to go through.


The perpetrators in this example were severely punished. One was permanently expelled from school. The expelled boy, the one with the taser, thought the school's response was greatly exaggerated. "Nobody got hurt or anything. It was just a joke." The boy knew that a taser was dangerous, but that knowledge did not stop him from using the thing. He didn't feel the danger or the fear. Not only did he use it, but he showed no remorse afterwards. In a letter he stated that he found the supervising teachers cowardly and the school worthless. The question is whether expulsion from school will deter the boy from such misbehavior next time. The consequences of the punishment for him did not seem to affect him. These are also mainly long-term consequences. The short-term consequences are not that negative for him at all. In his social environment, his behavior attracts admiration rather than disapproval. The punishment increases his status "on the street" rather than diminishing it. Is it wise to send this boy out of school if he may not learn anything from it himself? The main argument for sending him away was that the safety of the group was at stake. Not only by his act, but also by not showing any remorse, the boy affected the safety of the group. A second argument for sending him away was to make it clear, both to him and to everyone involved, where the boundaries lie. The boy has crossed certain boundaries through his actions and behavior and this has consequences.

Restorative justice (herstelrecht)

The other perpetrators were suspended, but initially not expelled from school. So-called restorative justice has been applied to them. This means that victims are given the opportunity to set conditions for the return to the class of perpetrators. If one or more of the victims found the return of the perpetrators unacceptable, then return would not be possible and the perpetrator would have to find another school. The victims could report this anonymously, if they wished, to maximize the safety of the victims. Adolescents' loyalty to each other is great. None of the victims found a possible return unacceptable. They made it a condition for return that the perpetrators would express serious remorse before the group. After doing so, they were allowed back into the classroom. It was striking that the atmosphere in this group was very close for weeks. They had been through something together.