By Leslie Lindsay
Remember the 1990s? Were you raising kids then, or maybe you were one? Do you recall the incentive programs teachers dangled–“If you read 100 books you get this?” or, the BookIt! Program through Pizza Hut–a star for every title you completed and so many stars got you a personal pan pizza at your local restaurant?
But that was just books and reading incentives. Countless medals were given to every kid on every sports team across the U.S.: “Most Improved,” “MVP,” “Most Likely to Sit on the Bench.” Okay, that last one is a bit of a joke, but in all seriousness, there seemed to have been an award for just about anything.
And then these kids grew up. They started expecting similar accolades in college, in the workplace. Everyone started believing that they were exceptional.
But maybe they weren’t.
In 1993, Alfie Kohn challenged this basic strategy we use for raising children, teaching students, and managing employees, which he summarized in six words:
“Do this and you’ll get that.”
This mindset is still alive and well. Incentives for losing weight, bribing students for higher test scores, higher sales equaling more recognition. But wait–what about the process? Why can’t we honor and respect the process of working hard?
In 1993, Kohn warned that offering rewards to people to do what we want proves to be destructive at home, at school, at work. And now, twenty-five years later, that temptation is no less powerful. And the effects are still just as unsatisfactory.
The key here is two-fold: to be intrinsically motivated (that is, from within; innately) and to enjoy the process, not just the outcome (reward, praise, token) and that is what shapes and changes one’s behavior and performance.
PUNISHED BY REWARDS: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, August 8 2018) is back with the 25th Anniversary Edition and a whole new generation of parents and kiddos.
I’m so honored to welcome Alfie Kohn to the author interview series. Please join us.
What’s wrong with rewards? I thought we were supposed to try and catch people doing something right rather than punishing or criticizing all the time.
The fact is that rewards and punishments are much more similar to each other than different. If you think about it, “Do this and you’ll get that” is really pretty close to “Do this or here’s what’ll happen to you.” Both are ways of trying to manipulate someone’s behavior. And both have disturbing consequences.
Well, if we’re talking about how well people work or learn, the quality of performance tends to decline in the long run when either threats or bribes are used to “motivate” people. A number of studies have found that people who see themselves as working at a task mostly in order to receive some goody wind up doing a significantly poorer job than people who aren’t expecting to receive anything.
Why is that?
One reason — and this is also a rather destructive effect in its own right — is that when you do something for a reward you tend to become less interested in what you’re doing. It comes to seem like a chore, something you have to get through in order to pick up the dollar or the A or the extra dessert. What this means is that millions of well-meaning teachers and parents and managers are killing off creativity and curiosity in their attempt to bribe people to do a good job.
“A compelling argument that the use of rewards is counterproductive in raising children, teaching students, and managing workers….A clear, convincing demonstration…written with style, humor, and authority.”
Are you seriously saying rewards don’t work? I mean, if I offered you a hundred dollars to autograph your book for me, wouldn’t you do it?
I’d do it for free, actually, but never mind that. You’re right: rewards work. But work to do what? And at what cost? Those are the two questions we should always be asking. Rewards, like punishments, work very effectively to produce one thing and only one thing: temporary compliance. But if our goal is to get quality in the workplace; or to help students become self-directed, lifelong learners; or to raise responsible, caring children — then rewards are not only ineffective, they’re actually counterproductive.
Absolutely. Beyond the effects on performance, consider the question of how we raise children to have good values. Studies show that kids whose parents reward them a lot are less generous than their peers. Is that surprising to you? Think about it: such children have been trained to think that the only reason to care about other people is because of what they’ll get out of it. When there’s no incentive provided — no candy bar or praise or whatever — they have absolutely no reason to help. They’re not thinking, “What kind of person do I want to be?” They’re thinking, “What do I have to do to get the reward?” It’s awfully tempting to try to control kids by promising them good things if they do what we want — or by threatening them with bad things if they don’t — but this approach makes them less responsible and generous in the long term.
So you’re saying rewards really don’t motivate us?
I’m saying rewards motivate us to get rewards. Unfortunately, that’s usually at the expense of excellence at what we’re doing and a commitment to keep doing it.
So what’s the alternative?
Well, that depends on whether we’re talking about productivity or learning or values, and on what our specific goals are. If we want mindless obedience, there is no alternative to rewards — except maybe punishment. But if we want creativity and intrinsic motivation and good values and all that stuff, then it doesn’t make sense to ask “What’s the alternative to rewards?” because rewards never moved us one inch toward those goals. Manipulating people’s behavior never will. We have to start from scratch and ask what does help us reach those goals.
OK. What does?
There’s no simple answer. “One size fits all” is a lie in clothing and it’s a lie in behavior. Stickers and A’s and pay-for-performance are so popular because they seem to offer an easy answer. After all, they’re based on a theory of motivation that was developed on laboratory animals. But in the last three chapters of the book I take a crack at exploring the roots of excellence in the workplace and the classroom and how kids grow up to be good people. My answer takes the form of three “C’s”: content, choice, and collaboration. Content means that we have to think about what we’re asking people to do; if the work is pointless or the request is unreasonable, it’s no wonder people seem to require bribes to do it. Choice means that people are most likely to do their best when they’re given a substantial degree of autonomy about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And collaboration refers to the proven importance of working or learning with other people instead of against them or apart from them.
I can’t resist asking you this: Were you paid to write this book?
Sure. I make my living by writing and lecturing. But I find I have to try to stop thinking about the money while I work so I don’t stop loving what I do. Managers need to divorce the task from the compensation as best they can by paying people well and then doing everything possible to help them put money out of their minds. Likewise, teachers and parents ought to do everything in their power to help students forget that grades exist — at least if their goal is to maximize learning. But my main point here is that there’s nothing wrong with money — or with candy or kind words, for that matter. The problem begins when we make these things contingent. It’s when we say, “Do this and you’ll get that.” The damage occurs when the stuff people like and need is dangled in front of them as a way of controlling their behavior.
I want to make sure I understand your reference to “kind words.” What are you saying about praise? Surely you can’t mean that we’re supposed to stop smiling and saying, “Good job”?
Praise is more complicated than tangible rewards, and my criticism is more qualified here. Of course, any suggestion that praise isn’t simply terrific seems controversial because we’re taught to just slather it on. The bottom line is that if people feel we’re not merely giving them feedback but actually using honeyed phrases to control them, then verbal rewards will be just as destructive as any other kind. Encouraging people is fine, but only if we do it in a way that leaves them feeling self-determining and interested in what they’re doing — as opposed to feeling dependent on our approval. A lot of us give praise more because we have to say it than because they have to hear it: it gets people to do what we want and it makes us feel powerful because we’re doing the judging. But our goal should be to help others, especially children, develop the capacity to figure out whether they’re proud of themselves, not what they can do to please us.
So what would you say to people who have been using rewards in just the way you’ve described and are now wondering whether they’ve done everything wrong?
My answer is that if they’re seriously re-evaluating their approach, then I’m not worried about them. The best parents — and for that matter, the best teachers and managers — are those who are willing to rethink their most basic beliefs and practices. The people I worry about are those who say, “I don’t care what the studies show. Rewards work and nothing’s going to change my mind.”
For more information, to connect with the author via social media, or to purchase a copy of PUNISHED BY REWARDS, please visit:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alfie Kohn writes and speaks widely on human behavior, education, and parenting. The most recent of his 14 books are SCHOOLING BEYOND MEASURE…And Other Unorthodox Essays About Education (2015) and THE MYTH OF THE SPOILED CHILD: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom About Children and Parenting (2014).
Kohn has been described in Time magazine as “perhaps the country’s most outspoken critic of education’s fixation on grades [and] test scores.” His criticisms of competition and rewards have helped to shape the thinking of educators — as well as parents and managers — across the country and abroad. Kohn has been featured on hundreds of TV and radio programs, including the “Today” show and two appearances on “Oprah”; he has been profiled in the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, while his work has been described and debated in many other leading publications.
Kohn lectures widely at universities and to school faculties, parent groups, and corporations. He is the father of two children and lives in the Boston area.
You can connect with me, Leslie Lindsay, via these websites:
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[Cover and author image retrieved from author’s website on 8.4.18. Special thanks to HMH]