The evils of incentives.

[2d post in a series; start with the first post here]

Yesterday, I talked about research on incentives, and how a temporary incentive might undermine intrinsic motivation. This view has had a major impact on policy regarding incentives, particularly in relation to children and education.

Alfie Kohn has published several books on the topic, including “Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes.” Here he is explaining to Oprah and TV viewers everywhere, why rewarding kids is a very bad idea.  He presents the main idea in the first three minutes:


In the interview, he says:

“One of the findings in psychology that has been shown over and over again — the more you reward people for doing something, the more they tend to lose interest in whatever they had to do to get the reward.”

He then goes on to specifically talk about grades as problematic incentives.  In his book, he goes even farther, saying that verbal praise is coercive and should be avoided because it contains an implied threat to withhold praise in the future.

But looking back at Deci, Koestner and Ryan’s meta analysis which I discussed yesterday, verbal rewards had no negative effect on children’s subsequent motivation, and even tangible rewards had no post-reward effect when the reward was unexpected. So, this seems to be over-selling the impact of temporary rewards that had been found in the literature.

The show does an experiment of their own that yields a somewhat implausibly strong effect. Kohn then characterizes this result first in terms of an inference-based theory of intrinsic motivation, before circling back to the control vs. autonomy account.

“If the kid figures they have to bribe me to do this, then it must be something I wouldn’t want to do, so the very act of offering a reward for a behavior signals to somebody that this is not something interesting.”

What he’s talking about here is the “overjustification hypothesis” of Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973). However, most of the experiments in which this has been tested were with young children (for example, pre-schoolers in the article above).  There’s something a bit odd to me about the idea that the teenagers on the show would not be able to judge how interesting the task was on their own, without making those kinds of more remote inferences.

A schoolteacher comes on and talks about a rewards program (“Earning by Learning”) her school uses to motivate reading that she thinks works. Kohn is skeptical and raises three issues — whether the kids are choosing easier books just to get the rewards, whether they comprehend what they’re reading and the issue we’ve been discussing, whether motivation will persist when the program is over.

Nevertheless, what we’re left with is the admonition that in the long run, rewards not only don’t work, but will harm motivation. As Oprah says, “You have to change the way you think about parenting!” But notice how far we are now from the original studies. Next, we’ll look at some more direct tests of this idea.


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