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Punished by Rewards

Alfie Kohn

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PART ONE – The Case Against Rewards

1 Skinner-Boxed: The Legacy of Behaviorism

2 Is It Right to Reward?

3 Is It Effective to Reward?

4 The Trouble with Carrots: Four Reasons Rewards Fail

5 Cutting the Interest Rate: The Fifth Reason Rewards Fail

6 The Praise Problem

PART TWO – Rewards in Practice

7 Pay for Performance: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Work in the Workplace

8 Lures for Learning: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Work in the Classroom

9 Bribes for Behaving: Why Behaviorism Doesn’t Help Children Become Good People

PART THREE – Beyond Rewards

10 Thank God It’s Monday: The Roots of Motivation in the Workplace

11 Hooked on Learning: The Roots of Motivation in the Classroom

12 Good Kids Without Goodies


Appendix A: A Conversation with B.F. Skinner

Appendix B: What Is Intrinsic Motivation?

Appendix C: The Behaviorists Talk Backa


I came very close to failing Introduction to Psychology, This wasat a school, you should understand, where the word psychology meant "the experimental study of animal physiology and behavior," and the only thing we students were required to do, apart from sitting through lectures, was to train caged rats to press a little bar. We reinforced them with Rice Krispies for doing this, and since they had been starved to 80 percent of normal bodyweight, they would have done almost anything for a little cereal.

I was successful, then, in carrying out the assignment, but less successful in figuring out the reason I was doing it. In a rather sophomoric act of rebellion (which was only appropriate given that I was in my second year of college at the time), I turned in a lab report written from the rat's point of view. The report described how, merely by pressing a bar, it had trained a college student to engage in breakfast-feeding behavior. The instructor was not amused, and as I say, I barely passed the course. But that didn't stop me from immediately writing a parody of a psychology journal article for the school paper. I had the article's author claiming a 100 percent success rate in conditioning his rats to avoid pressing Lever B (which caused a three-hundred-pound anvil to drop suddenly from the top of the cage), proudly noting that not a single rat had touched that lever more than once

In retrospect, I think it can fairly be said that I did not take well to behaviorism when first introduced to it. Nor did it grow on me as the years went by. By the time I had moved to Cambridge, home of B. F. Skinner, I decided it was time to ask him some of the questions that I had furiously scrawled in my copies of his books. I invited him to come speak to a class I was teaching and, to my
surprise, he agreed and even gamely smiled for the Instamatics held by awed students.

A few months later I hit on the idea of writing a profile of Professor Skinner for a magazine, which gave me the opportunity to interview him twice more. In these sessions he patiently answered all my questions. I found myself admiring the fact that while his age had dulled his eyesight and hearing, it had not muted his evangelical fervor for behaviorism. (Excerpts from those interviews are reprinted in Appendix A of this book )

Eventually I recovered from my preoccupation with Skinner's ideas, but then only to become increasingly concerned about the popular version of behaviorism, whereby we try to solve problems by offering people a goody if they do what we want When, for example, I began to discover in my researches an extensive collection of evidence demonstrating that competition holds us back from doing our best work, it soon became clear that one of the reasons for its surprising failure is its status as an extrinsic motivator - a Rice Krispie, if you will. Later, investigating the question of altruism, Ifound studies showing that rewarding children for their generosity is a spectacularly unsuccessful way of promoting that quality.

Gradually it began to dawn on me that our society is caught in a whopping paradox. We complain loudly about such things as the sagging productivity of our workplaces, the crisis of our schools,and the warped values of our children But the very strategy we use to solve those problems - dangling rewards like incentive plans and grades and candy bars in front of people - is partly responsible for the fix we're in. We are a society of loyal Skinnerians, unable to think our way out of the box we have reinforced ourselves into.

I headed back to the libraries and found scores of studies documenting the failure of pop behaviorism, studies whos existence remains unknown to all but a few social psychologists.No wonder there had never been a book written for a general audience that showed how rewards undermine our efforts to teach students or manage workers or raise children - much less a broader critique that looked at all three arenas This is what I set out to write, well aware that such a challenge to conventional thinking would be even more unsettling than a lab report written from the rat's perspective,

Of this book's twelve chapters, the first six lay out the central argument. Chapter 1 briefly reviews the behaviorist tradition, the prevalence of pop behaviorism in our society, and some reasons for its widespread acceptance. Chapter 2 weighs arguments about the intrinsic desirability of rewarding people, first challenging the claim that doing so is morally or logically required, and then proposing that there is actually something objectionable about the practice

Chapter 3 moves from philosophical arguments to practical consequences, summarizing the research evidence showing that rewards simply do not work to promote lasting behavior change or to enhance performance; in fact, they often make things worse. Then, in chapters 4 and 5, I explain why this is true, offering five key reasons for the failure of rewards, all of which amount to serious criticisms of the practice apart from their effects on performance. Chapter 6 examines one particular reward that few of us would ever think to criticize: praise

The second half of the book examines the effect of rewards,and alternatives to them, with respect to the three issues I've mentioned: employees' performance, students' learning, and children's behavior. This part of the book is arranged so that readers primarily interested in only one of these topics won't have to wade through discussions of the other two. Workplace issues are discussed in chapters 7 and 10, educational issues in chapters 8 and11, and the question of children's behavior and values (which is relevant to teachers as well as parents) in chapters 9 and 12. Serious readers will find that the endnotes provide not only citations for the studies and quotations but additional thoughts, qualifications, and discussion of the issues raised in the text.

Because this project is both ambitious and controversial, the only sensible thing to do at this point is try to place some of the blame for my conclusions on the people who helped me. I was first introduced to research on the detrimental effects of rewards (particularly with respect to creativity ) by Teresa Amabile. My views on raising and teaching children have been mightily influenced by the wisdom of Eric Schaps and Marilyn Watson. I continue to take advantage of every chance I get to exchange ideas with these three people, all of whom I consider friends

1 have also spent hours badgering a number of other writers and researchers, picking their brains, challenging their ideas and inviting them to reciprocate. For some reason they agreed to this, even though most of them didn't know me. I'm very grateful to Rich Ryan, Barry Schwal'tz, John Nicholls, Ed Deci, Mark Lepper, Carole Ames, and the late B. F, Skinner (who, of course, would have been appalled by the result). Friends who have pressed me to think harder about these issues over the years include Lisa Lahey, Fred Hapgood, Sarah Wernick, and Alisa Harrigan.

An entirely different commitment of time and energy was involved in reading and criticizing drafts of my chapters. Here profuse thanks are due to Eric Schaps, Teresa Amabile, AlisaHarrigan, Phil Korman, John Nicholls, Carole Ames, Ed Deci, and most of all, to three people who took the time to read virtually the entire manuscript, offering one incisive comment after another: Barry Schwartz, Rich Ryan, and Bill Greene. Bill, who has done this for me four times now, has long since gone beyond the call of duty or friendship. Actually, you ought to be thanking him since he has spared you from having to read my first drafts

Finally, let me acknowledge the assistance and support provided by Ruth Hapgood and Betsy Lerner, my editors, and JohnWare, my agent, as well as all the people who, having heard me speak about rewards, asked hard questions that forced me to rethink my critique, refine my presentation, and reconsider the evidence. They've done me a great service by challenging some of my assumptions I hope I can return the favor.



Part One

1. SKINNER-BOXED: The Legacy of

For the anthropomorphic view of the rat, American psychology substituted a rattomorphicview of man.

Arthur Koestler, //,e Act of Creatton

THF:~ IS A T~ to admire the grace and persuasive power of an influential idea, and there is a time to fear its hold over us The time to worry is when the idea is so widely shared that we no longer even notice it, when it is so deeply rooted that it feels to uslike plain common sense. At the point when objections are not answered anymore because they are no longer even raised, we are not in control: we do not have the idea~ it has us

This book is about an idea that has attained just such a status in
our society, The idea is that the best way to get something done is
to provide a reward to people when they act the way we want them
to Scholars have debated the meaning and traced the development
of the intellectual tradition known as behaviorism. What interests
me, though, is the popular (or pop) incarnation of this doctrine, the
version that lives in our collective consciousness and affects what

we do every day.

The core of pop behaviorism is "Do this and you'll get that "

The wisdom of this technique is very rarely held up for inspection;,
all that is open to question is what exactly people will receive and
under what circumstances it will be promised and delivered We

take for granted that this is the logical way to raise children, teach
students, and manage employees We promise bubble gum to a

five-year-old if he keeps quiet in the supermarket, We dangle an A
before a teenager to get her to study harder. We hold out the

possibility of a Hawaiian vacation for a salesman who sells enough
of the company's product.

It will not take more than a few paragraphs to make the casethat we are deeply committed to this way of thinking and behavingBut my aim is considerably more ambitious I want to argue thatthere is something profoundly wrong-headed about thisdoctrine-that its assumptions are misleading and the practices itgenerates are both intrinsically objectionable andcounterproductive, This last contention in particular, that from apurely pragmatic point of view pop behaviorism usually fails toproduce the consequences we intended, takes up most of the pagesthat follow.

To offer such an indictment is not to suggest that there is something wrong with most of the things that are used as rewards. It is not bubble gum itself that is the problem, nor money, nor love and attention. The rewards themselves are in some cases innocuous and in other cases indispensable. What concerns me is the practice of using these things as rewards. To take what people want or need and offer it on a contingent basis in order to control how they act - this is where the trouble lies. Our attention is properly focused, in other words, not on "that" (the thing desired) but on the requirement that one must do this in order to get that.

My premise here is that rewarding people for their compliance is not "the way the world works," as many insist. It is not a fundamental law of human nature. It is but one way of thinking and speaking, of organizing our experience and dealing with others It may seem natural to us, but it actually reflects a particularideology that can be questioned. I believe that it is long past time

I see an unfinished file when I turn on the pc - it reminds me of maslow and his journal that was published after he died.

"keep a journal" - my thought for teens or anyone who wants to / needs to make a difference in the world.