Santa Claus is coming to town. He’s making a list and checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice.
This popular Christmas song is really about how we encourage children to have self-control or engage in moral behavior. The song lets kids know that someone (could be a parent, big brother, the neighbors, the police, a spiritual figure, or Santa Claus) is watching what they are doing. And there will be consequences for their actions—presents for those “good” or “nice” kids and nothing or worse for those who were naughty.
Philosophers have grappled with the reasons people behave the way they do for centuries. What motivates saints and sinners? Do people behave because they want to be good (nice) or because they don’t want to be punished? Well, that depends.
Some people do things in order to get a reward, meet a goal, or be praised. This tendency is called approach motivation. Santa Claus would call people who strive for this state “nice.” People who favor approach motivation will seek challenging tasks and work harder when activities are difficult.
Other people are motivated by the desire to avoid something, such as a speeding ticket, jail time, a spanking, hard work, or getting yelled at. Santa might consider these folks more likely to be “naughty,” that is, if they get caught. Those who avoid may give up easily, stay away from challenges, and do bad things if they believe they can get away with it.
People with approach motivation tend to be achieve more, have better coping skills, less depression, and engage in more positive events. Those who behave in order to avoid trouble don’t seem to be as successful in their attempts. They get in trouble more, have more sadness in their lives, and are generally less successful.
So, you better watch out.