ERIC Identifier: ED376990
Publication Date: 1994-12-00
Author: Kohn, Alfie
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Elementary and Early Childhood Education Urbana IL.
The Risks of Rewards. ERIC Digest.
Many educators are acutely aware that punishment and threats are
counterproductive. Making children suffer in order to alter their future
behavior can often elicit temporary compliance, but this strategy is unlikely to
help children become ethical, compassionate decision makers. Punishment, even if
referred to euphemistically as "consequences," tends to generate anger,
defiance, and a desire for revenge. Moreover, it models the use of power rather
than reason and ruptures the important relationship between adult and child.
Of those teachers and parents who make a point of not punishing children, a
significant proportion turn instead to the use of rewards. The ways in which
rewards are used, as well as the values that are considered important, differ
among (and within) cultures. This digest, however, deals with typical practices
in classrooms in the United States, where stickers and stars, A's and praise,
awards and privileges, are routinely used to induce children to learn or comply
with an adult's demands (Fantuzzo et al., 1991). As with punishments, the offer
of rewards can elicit temporary compliance in many cases. Unfortunately, carrots
turn out to be no more effective than sticks at helping children to become
caring, responsible people or lifelong, self-directed learners.
REWARDS VS. GOOD VALUES
Studies over many years have found
that behavior modification programs are rarely successful at producing lasting
changes in attitudes or even behavior. When the rewards stop, people usually
return to the way they acted before the program began. More disturbingly,
researchers have recently discovered that children whose parents make frequent
use of rewards tend to be less generous than their peers (Fabes et al., 1989;
Grusec, 1991; Kohn 1990).
Indeed, extrinsic motivators do not alter the emotional or cognitive
COMMITMENTS that underlie behavior--at least not in a desirable direction. A
child promised a treat for learning or acting responsibly has been given every
reason to stop doing so when there is no longer a reward to be gained.
Research and logic suggest that punishment and rewards are not really
opposites, but two sides of the same coin. Both strategies amount to ways of
trying to manipulate someone's behavior--in one case, prompting the question,
"What do they want me to do, and what happens to me if I don't do it?", and in
the other instance, leading a child to ask, "What do they want me to do, and
what do I get for doing it?" Neither strategy helps children to grapple with the
question, "What kind of person do I want to be?"
REWARDS VS. ACHIEVEMENT
Rewards are no more helpful at
enhancing achievement than they are at fostering good values. At least two dozen
studies have shown that people expecting to receive a reward for completing a
task (or for doing it successfully) simply do not perform as well as those who
expect nothing (Kohn, 1993). This effect is robust for young children, older
children, and adults; for males and females; for rewards of all kinds; and for
tasks ranging from memorizing facts to designing collages to solving problems.
In general, the more cognitive sophistication and open-ended thinking that is
required for a task, the worse people tend to do when they have been led to
perform that task for a reward.
There are several plausible explanations for this puzzling but remarkably
consistent finding. The most compelling of these is that REWARDS CAUSE PEOPLE TO
LOSE INTEREST IN WHATEVER THEY WERE REWARDED FOR DOING. This phenomenon, which
has been demonstrated in scores of studies (Kohn, 1993), makes sense given that
"motivation" is not a single characteristic that an individual possesses to a
greater or lesser degree. Rather, intrinsic motivation (an interest in the task
for its own sake) is qualitatively different from extrinsic motivation (in which
completion of the task is seen chiefly as a prerequisite for obtaining something
else) (Deci & Ryan, 1985). Therefore, the question educators need to ask is
not how motivated their students are, but how their students are motivated.
In one representative study, young children were introduced to an unfamiliar
beverage called kefir. Some were just asked to drink it; others were praised
lavishly for doing so; a third group was promised treats if they drank enough.
Those children who received either verbal or tangible rewards consumed more of
the beverage than other children, as one might predict. But a week later these
children found it significantly less appealing than they did before, whereas
children who were offered no rewards liked it just as much as, if not more than,
they had earlier (Birch et al., 1984). If we substitute reading or doing math or
acting generously for drinking kefir, we begin to glimpse the destructive power
of rewards. The data suggest that the more we want children to WANT to do
something, the more counterproductive it will be to reward them for doing it.
Deci and Ryan (1985) describe the use of rewards as "control through
seduction." Control, whether by threats or bribes, amounts to doing things TO
children rather than working WITH them. This ultimately frays relationships,
both among students (leading to reduced interest in working with peers) and
between students and adults (insofar as asking for help may reduce the
probability of receiving a reward).
Moreover, students who are encouraged to think about grades, stickers, or
other "goodies" become less inclined to explore ideas, think creatively, and
take chances. At least ten studies have shown that people offered a reward
generally choose the easiest possible task (Kohn, 1993). In the absence of
rewards, by contrast, children are inclined to pick tasks that are just beyond
their current level of ability.
PRACTICAL IMPLICATIONS OF THE FAILURE OF REWARDS
implications of this analysis and these data are troubling. If the question is "Do rewards motivate students?", the answer is, "Absolutely: they motivate
students to get rewards." Unfortunately, that sort of motivation often comes at
the expense of interest in, and excellence at, whatever they are doing. What is
required, then, is nothing short of a transformation of our schools.
First, classroom management programs that rely on rewards and consequences
ought to be avoided by any educator who wants students to take responsibility
for their own (and others') behavior--and by any educator who places
internalization of positive values ahead of mindless obedience. The alternative
to bribes and threats is to work toward creating a caring community whose
members solve problems collaboratively and decide together how they want their
classroom to be (DeVries & Zan, 1994; Solomon et al., 1992).
Second, grades in particular have been found to have a detrimental effect on
creative thinking, long-term retention, interest in learning, and preference for
challenging tasks (Butler & Nisan, 1986; Grolnick & Ryan, 1987). These
detrimental effects are not the result of too many bad grades, too many good
grades, or the wrong formula for calculating grades. Rather, they result from
the practice of grading itself, and the extrinsic orientation it promotes.
Parental use of rewards or consequences to induce children to do well in school
has a similarly negative effect on enjoyment of learning and, ultimately, on
achievement (Gottfried et al., 1994). Avoiding these effects requires assessment
practices geared toward helping students experience success and failure not as
reward and punishment, but as information.
Finally, this distinction between reward and information might be applied to
positive feedback as well. While it can be useful to hear about one's successes,
and highly desirable to receive support and encouragement from adults, most
praise is tantamount to verbal reward. Rather than helping children to develop
their own criteria for successful learning or desirable behavior, praise can
create a growing dependence on securing someone else's approval. Rather than
offering unconditional support, praise makes a positive response conditional on
doing what the adult demands. Rather than heightening interest in a task, the
learning is devalued insofar as it comes to be seen as a prerequisite for
receiving the teacher's approval (Kohn, 1993).
In short, good values have to be grown from the
inside out. Attempts to short-circuit this process by dangling rewards in front
of children are at best ineffective, and at worst counterproductive. Children
are likely to become enthusiastic, lifelong learners as a result of being
provided with an engaging curriculum; a safe, caring community in which to
discover and create; and a significant degree of choice about what (and how and
why) they are learning. Rewards--like punishments--are unnecessary when these
things are present, and are ultimately destructive in any case.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Birch, L.L., D.W. Marlin, and J.
Rotter. (1984). Eating as the 'Means' Activity in a Contingency: Effects on
Young Children's Food Preference. CHILD DEVELOPMENT 55(2, Apr): 431-439. EJ 303
Butler, R., and M. Nisan. (1986). Effects of No Feedback, Task-Related
Comments, and Grades on Intrinsic Motivation and Performance. JOURNAL OF
EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY 78(3, June): 210-216. EJ 336 917.
Deci, E. L., and R. M. Ryan. (1985). INTRINSIC MOTIVATION AND
SELF-DETERMINATION IN HUMAN BEHAVIOR. New York: Plenum.
DeVries, R., and B. Zan. (1994). MORAL CLASSROOMS, MORAL CHILDREN: CREATING A CONSTRUCTIVIST ATMOSPHERE IN EARLY EDUCATION. New York: Teachers College Press.
Fabes, R.A., J. Fultz, N. Eisenberg, T. May-Plumlee, and F.S. Christopher.
(1989). Effects of Rewards on Children's Prosocial Motivation: A Socialization
Study. DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY 25(4, Jul): 509-515. EJ 396 958.
Fantuzzo, J.W., C.A. Rohrbeck, A.D. Hightower, and W.C. Work. (1991).
Teachers' Use and Children's Preferences of Rewards in Elementary School.
PSYCHOLOGY IN THE SCHOOLS 28(2, Apr): 175-181. EJ 430 936.
Gottfried, A.E., J.S. Fleming, and A.W. Gottfried. (1994). Role of Parental
Motivational Practices in Children's Academic Intrinsic Motivation and
Achievement. JOURNAL OF EDUCATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY 86(1): 104-113.
Grolnick, W.S., and R.M. Ryan. (1987). Autonomy in Children's Learning: An
Experimental and Individual Difference Investigation. JOURNAL OF PERSONALITY AND
SOCIAL PSYCHOLOGY 52: 890-898.
Grusec, J.E. (1991). Socializing Concern for Others in the Home.
DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY 27(2, Mar): 338-342. EJ 431 672.
Kohn, A. (1990). THE BRIGHTER SIDE OF HUMAN NATURE: ALTRUISM AND EMPATHY IN
EVERYDAY LIFE. New York: Basic Books.
Kohn, A. (1993). PUNISHED BY REWARDS: THE TROUBLE WITH GOLD STARS, INCENTIVE
PLANS, A'S, PRAISE, AND OTHER BRIBES. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Solomon, D., M. Watson, V. Battistich, E. Schaps, and K. Delucchi. (1992).
Creating a Caring Community: Educational Practices That Promote Children's
Prosocial Development. In F.K. Oser, A. Dick, and J.L. Patry (Eds.), EFFECTIVE
AND RESPONSIBLE TEACHING: THE NEW SYNTHESIS. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.