Sanctions Compliance

What Is the Difference Between a Positive and a Negative Sanction?

Sanctions can be positive (rewards) or negative (punishments) used to influence behavior. Positive sanctions encourage desired actions. Negative sanctions deter unwanted behavior. Both are used to maintain social order and enforce norms. Sanctions can also be formal (legal) or informal (social pressure). The effectiveness of sanctions depends on various factors and can have unintended consequences. Let's find out more.

Editorial Team
June 17, 2024

Sanctions are penalties imposed by governments or international organisations on individuals, businesses, or even countries. These penalties aim to punish or deter unwanted behaviour, often related to national security threats, human rights violations or violations of international law, and economic destabilisation. 

But did you know that there are positive and negative sanctions to consider? Let’s take a closer look at the two. 

What is a Sanction?

A sanction, in the context of social behaviour, is a mechanism used by society to enforce norms and values. It's a form of social control, a way to regulate and enforce the rules that govern how individuals should behave within a community. Sanctions can be formal or informal, and they can either reward or punish behaviour. 

Formal sanctions are officially recognised and enforced by entities like the government or institutions, while informal sanctions occur in face-to-face interactions and are often enforced by peers, family, or community members. The purpose of a sanction is to encourage adherence to social norms and discourage deviant behaviour.

Sanctions can also be split into positive or negative sanctions. 

Positive Sanctions

Positive sanctions are rewards given to individuals or groups to encourage behaviour that aligns with societal norms. They serve as a form of social control, reinforcing desirable actions and attitudes. Here are a few examples:

  • Academic Recognition: A student who consistently performs well in school might receive praise or compliments, reinforcing the importance of academic excellence.
  • Workplace Incentives: An employee exceeding performance targets could be rewarded with a bonus or promotion, encouraging diligence and productivity.
  • Community Acknowledgement: A volunteer making significant contributions to a charity might receive a certificate of appreciation, promoting community service and altruism.

Positive sanctions can effectively regulate and enforce social norms, fostering a harmonious and productive society.

Negative Sanctions: Definition and Examples

Negative sanctions are essentially punitive measures taken to discourage certain behaviours or actions that violate social norms or laws. They are often used as a tool for social control and can be either formal or informal. Here are a few examples:

  • Fines: Monetary penalties imposed by legal authorities for breaking laws or regulations.
  • Imprisonment: A severe form of punishment for serious crimes, enforced by the judicial system.
  • Social Ostracism: A form of informal sanction where individuals are excluded from social or professional circles due to unacceptable behaviour.
  • Public Criticism or Ridicule: Another informal sanction where individuals are publicly criticised or mocked for their actions or behaviour.
  • Embargoes or Trade Restrictions: These are sanctions imposed by governments or international bodies to restrict trade with certain countries due to political or economic reasons.

Negative sanctions, while punitive, serve a crucial role in maintaining order and enforcing norms within a society. They act as deterrents, discouraging individuals or entities from engaging in behaviours that are deemed harmful or unacceptable. However, the effectiveness of these sanctions can vary greatly depending on the context and the individuals involved.

Economic Sanctions: A Special Case

Economic sanctions are a unique and potent tool in the realm of international relations. They serve as a non-violent means of exerting pressure on a nation, aiming to alter its behaviour or policies. However, the effectiveness and ethical implications of such measures are often subjects of intense debate.

What are Economic Sanctions?

Economic sanctions are a powerful tool in the arsenal of international diplomacy. They are essentially a form of punishment or reward, imposed by one nation onto another. The aim is to compel or prevent certain actions or policies.

Sanctions can take various forms, including export embargoes, import boycotts, and trade blacklists. An export embargo, for instance, is a refusal to export certain goods or services to the targeted nation. This can severely impact the economy of the targeted nation, especially if it heavily relies on the embargoed goods or services.

On the other hand, import boycotts involve refusing to import goods or services from the targeted nation. This can also have a significant impact, particularly if the targeted nation depends on the export of those goods or services for its economic stability.

Trade blacklists are another form of economic sanction. They involve covert refusals to trade with the targeted nation. This can be particularly damaging as it can isolate the targeted nation from international trade networks.

Examples of Economic Sanctions

  • United States against Russia: In response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the U.S. imposed sanctions that restricted the purchase of equipment for natural gas drilling and limited banking services. This double blow significantly impacted Russia's economy, as they were unable to buy cheap American equipment and couldn't use American banks to finance it.
  • United States against North Korea: The U.S. has had sanctions in place against North Korea since 1950, which have increased since North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in 2003. These sanctions have made it difficult for North Korea to conduct business or transfer income.
  • International sanctions against Russia: Following Russia's military invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Russia became the most sanctioned country in the world. Both the U.S. and the EU froze Russian assets and gold reserves, limiting Russia's ability to conduct business in dollars and euros abroad.
  • UN Security Council against Iraq: After Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the UN Security Council levied all-encompassing economic sanctions on Iraq. These sanctions, intended to force Iraq's leader, Saddam Hussein, from power, instead caused hardship for ordinary Iraqi citizens.
  • U.S. against Turkey: In 2018, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions aimed at two high-level officials of the Turkish government in response to Turkey's failure to free an American pastor imprisoned on charges of participating in a failed coup attempt.

These examples illustrate how economic sanctions, as a form of actual or threatened punishment, can have significant impacts on the targeted nations. They can disrupt trade, limit financial services, and isolate a country economically. However, they can also cause unintended hardships for ordinary citizens.

The Effectiveness of Positive and Negative Sanctions

In our exploration of sanctions, we now turn our attention to the effectiveness of both positive and negative sanctions. These mechanisms, which can be seen as a form of reward or punishment, play a crucial role in shaping behaviours within societies and organisations. However, their impact is not always as straightforward as one might think.

Evaluating the Impact of Positive Sanctions

Positive sanctions, often thought of as rewards, can be a powerful tool in shaping behaviour. They can encourage cooperation, foster goodwill, and promote adherence to rules or norms. However, their effectiveness is not always straightforward.

For instance, a positive sanction may not always lead to the desired outcome if the reward is not perceived as valuable by the recipient. The impact of a positive sanction can also be influenced by the timing and consistency of its application.

Moreover, the effectiveness of positive sanctions can be diminished if they are applied indiscriminately or without clear criteria. This can lead to confusion and resentment, undermining the intended goal of the sanction.

In some cases, positive sanctions can even have unintended negative consequences. For example, they may inadvertently reward and reinforce undesirable behavior if not carefully designed and implemented.

Therefore, while positive sanctions can be a useful tool, their impact needs to be carefully evaluated to ensure they are achieving their intended goals. This requires a nuanced understanding of the context in which they are applied, as well as the motivations and perceptions of the individuals or groups they are targeting.

Evaluating the Impact of Negative Sanctions

Negative sanctions, often thought of as restrictions or punishments, can have a profound impact on a nation's economy and social structure. For instance, the United States' sanctions against Cuba and North Korea have significantly hampered their economic growth and international trade. However, the effectiveness of these sanctions is a subject of ongoing debate.

In some cases, negative sanctions have failed to achieve their intended objectives. The sanctions against Iraq, for example, were meant to oust Saddam Hussein from power. Instead, they resulted in widespread hardship for ordinary Iraqis, while Saddam's regime remained largely unaffected.

Similarly, the sanctions against North Korea have been in place since 1950, yet the country continues to test nuclear weapons. This suggests that negative sanctions, while disruptive, may not always lead to the desired political outcomes.

Negative sanctions can sometimes exacerbate conflicts or damage diplomatic relations. The U.S.'s sanctions against Turkish officials in 2018, for instance, led to a tit-for-tat response from Turkey, straining relations between the two countries.

Final Thoughts on Positive and Negative Sanctions

Understanding the difference between positive and negative sanctions is crucial in comprehending how societies function. Positive sanctions, as rewards, encourage conformity to social norms, while negative sanctions serve as deterrents for deviant behaviour.

Both play a significant role in maintaining social order and enforcing norms.

Formal and informal sanctions, whether positive or negative, are tools used to regulate behaviour within a society. While formal sanctions are officially recognized and enforced, informal sanctions occur in everyday social interactions.

Both types of sanctions are essential in shaping societal values and norms.

Lastly, it's important to remember that sanctions aren't just about punishment. They also involve rewards and incentives that promote positive behaviour. is a highly reliable and cost-effective solution for real-time screening. AI-powered and with an enterprise-grade API with 99.99% uptime are reasons why customers globally trust us with their compliance efforts and sanctions screening needs.

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Editorial Team
This article was put together by the expert editorial team.
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