Punished by rewards

December 25, 2007

—Nina Pierpont, MD, PhD

What do you do about a child or teenager who won’t do anything—who’s checked out of the family, won’t help around the house, and is failing in school?  Or the child who wants to be paid for everything he does?

And why, when there is no motivation for these everyday survival skills, is there more and more interest (at increasingly younger ages) in the kinds of “rewarding” activities we don’t want children to want—like alcohol, drugs, and sex?

What is our culture doing to motivation?

To understand this we need to dive into the word “behavior,” a word carrying a tractor-trailer full of cultural meaning and philosophy about human beings.

“Behavior” refers to what we do, but specifically as observed from the outside.  Crying is a behavior, for example.  What we understand about a person’s internal state from seeing them cry or asking them why they cry is something different.  How we respond to the crying depends, in part, on our point of view about people.  Do we believe a person needs to be trained not to cry, or understood and comforted?

Notice that what used to be called “mental health” is now called “behavioral health.”  This reflects a subtle cultural shift in our concept of people.  “Mental” refers to mentation—the processes of thinking—and suggests a focus on finding out what is going on inside a person’s mind and helping to make it happier and healthier.  “Behavioral,” on the other hand, means a person is observed from the outside and judged according to how he or she acts.  It implies that what goes on inside is not very important, except insofar as it has the potential to produce disturbing behaviors.

This shift from “mental health” to “behavioral health” reflects an enlarging, society-wide embrace of behaviorism as the dominant model of how people work.  Since behaviorism may be having unanticipated results, it’s worth understanding what it is.

Behaviorism is a branch of psychology, studying the effects of rewards and punishments on animal and human behavior.  A pigeon can be taught to differentiate between a red and a green key if he gets a pellet to eat each time he taps the red key.  After a few trials he doesn’t tap the green key at all.  Dogs are trained by electric shocks from their collars to stop at a row of little white flags around their property line.  As they learn where the line is by natural landmarks, the flags are slowly removed but the dog still respects the boundary.  All this is “behaviorism.”

Behaviorism is coming to dominate social and corporate thinking in prisons, factories, schools, and other institutions.  It also dominates the advice given to parents by all sorts of well-meaning professionals, counselors and pediatricians included.  If a child isn’t doing what the adult wants, the advice runs, the adult probably is not being clear about expectations or consistent with rewards and punishments.

But aren’t rewards the way to go?  There is a common view that the problems were solved when happy face stickers, praise, and the earning of privileges for making good choices replaced corporal punishment.  No doubt this was (and is) an improvement, but we are still, somehow, destructive to children’s motivation.  Between the age of three (a highly motivated and interested age) and the age of thirteen, many children seem to die internally.  They check out and lose interest.

Why, when we are being so positive?  There is intriguing, clever psychological research clarifying this issue, whose results—I warn you—go against commonly held assumptions and beliefs.

Consider this experiment, performed on the Oprah Winfrey show when Oprah became interested in the work of educator Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes (1993 and 1999).  One by one, twenty children were greeted in an office building by an adult pretending to work for a toy company, who invited each child to help evaluate new puzzles.  Half the children were offered five dollars for each puzzle they tested.  Rewards were not mentioned to the other half.

After playing with and evaluating the puzzles, each child was left alone in the room and unknowingly videotaped.  All ten children who had not been offered any reward went back to playing with the puzzles.  Only one of the ten who had been rewarded with cash went back to playing with the puzzles.

The message of this exercise, together with numerous research experiments, is stark:  rewards appear to sap the intrinsic motivation or interest a person feels in the activity for which he or she is being rewarded.

In the next few weeks I will examine other experiments which establish this important and alarming conclusion beyond doubt, and I will explore the implications for school, learning, and work.