Although modern management and schooling techniques favor praising workers or students, the new research suggests that negative feedback produces more improvement than positive affirmation.
In fact, punishments were up to three times more effective at improving performance than rewards.
Dr Jan Kubanek, of the Washington University School of Medicine inSt Louis,US, who lead the study, said: "Our study suggests that negative feedback may be more effective than positive feedback at modifying behavior.
“Such feedback does not have to be harsh, since it appears that we tend to react in the same manner to any amount of negative feedback.
"From an evolutionary perspective, people tend to avoid punishments or dangerous situations. Rewards, on the other hand, have less of a life-threatening impact."
The research involved 88 students who were asked to identify the number of clicks sounded in their right and left ears.
Every time a student made a correct choice they were rewarded with a cash sum. But if they gave a wrong answer they had money deducted.
The research showed that those who had money deducted were more likely to make a correct choice in later rounds.
"Objectively, you would think that winning 25 cents would have the same magnitude of effect as losing 25 cents, but that's not what we found,” added Dr Kubanek.
Past studies on the effects of rewards and punishments on behavior have been unclear, said the authors.
According to the research, in some situations it may be better to deduct points when students are wrong rather than reward them for correct answers. This may help students avoid making the same mistake again.
Co-author and psychologist Prof Richard Adams said: "The question of how rewards and punishments influence behavior has occupied psychologists for over 100 years.
"The difficulty has been devising effective tasks to probe that question. We used a simple approach that reveals dramatic differences in the way people respond to different types of feedback."
The findings were published in the science journal Cognition.