Rewards and Motivation

Thursday 28 Feb

Dangling a carrot in front of a donkey serves a purpose in the short-term, but is unlikely to create in the donkey an intrinsic desire to move forward. Similarly, offering a reward to a child in exchange for action or achievement may prove fruitful in the short-term, but in the long-term may, in fact, reduce motivation and result in a young adult who is inspired to act or achieve only in exchange for a reward.

When you offer a child a reward in exchange for a certain behaviour, there’s the potential for the child to think, ‘The reason I will do this is because I’ll receive a reward.’ What will happen when you stop offering the reward? The child will likely cease the behaviour and think, ‘There’s no point in me doing this. I was only ever doing it to get my hands on a reward.’ Intrinsic motivation has flown out the window.

The hidden cost of rewards is highlighted in a study by psychologists Mark Lepper, David Greene and Robert Nisbett, which has become a classic in the field of motivation literature. The study is best summed up by Daniel Pink in his book, Drive.

The three researchers watched a classroom of preschoolers for several days and identified the children who chose to spend their ‘free play’ time drawing. Then they fashioned an experiment to test the effect of rewarding an activity these children clearly enjoyed.

The researchers divided the children into three groups. The first was the ‘expected-award’ group. They showed each of these children a ‘Good Player’ certificate—adorned with a blue ribbon and featuring the child’s name—and asked if the child wanted to draw in order to receive the award. The second group was the ‘unexpected-award’ group. Researchers asked these children simply if they wanted to draw. If they decided to, when the session ended, the researchers handed each child one of the ‘Good Player’ certificates. The third group was the ‘no-award’ group. Researchers asked these children if they wanted to draw, but neither promised them a certificate at the beginning nor gave them one at the end.

Two weeks later, back in the classroom, teachers set out paper and markers during the preschool’s free play period while the researchers secretly observed the students. Children previously in the ‘unexpected-award’ and ‘no-award’ groups drew just as much, and with the same relish, as they had before the experiment. But children in the first group—the ones who’d expected and then received an award—showed much less interest and spent much less time drawing. The Sawyer Effect [practices that can turn play into work or vice versa]had taken hold. Even two weeks later, those alluring prizes—so common in classrooms and cubicles—had turned play into work.

To be clear, it wasn’t necessarily the rewards themselves that dampened the children’s interest. Remember: When children didn’t expect a reward, receiving one had little impact on their intrinsic motivation. Only contingent rewards—if you do this, then you’ll get that—had the negative effect. Why? ‘If-then’ rewards require people to forfeit some of their autonomy … they’re no longer fully controlling their lives. And that can spring a hole in the bottom of their motivational bucket, draining an activity of its enjoyment.

Lepper and Greene replicated these results in several subsequent experiments with children. As time went on, other researchers found similar results with adults. Over and over again, they discovered that extrinsic rewards—in particular, contingent, expected, ‘if-then’ rewards—snuffed out the third drive.

So, if dangling a carrot in front of our children is shown in the long-term to have negative effects, what other motivations exist?

  1. Autonomy – The opposite of autonomy is control or management. Management is just a technology invented in the 1850s to get compliance – to get people to do what they wanted them to do. What we want to inspire in our children is engagement. People don’t engage through compliance; through being managed or controlled. They reach engagement under their own steam and through self-direction, and this comes through autonomy. The more autonomy a person has, the more engaged they become. Even having a defined and limited set of options or choices can provide a sense of autonomy. Look for ways that your child can be given greater autonomy in their day-to-day routines, in their learning and in their contributions to family life.
  2. Mastery – You only have to look into someone’s eyes while they’re doing something, to see if what they’re doing is a passion or a chore. Everyone wants to grow, to get better and to progress; this runs deeper in some than others, but it exists in all nonetheless. People who set their own goals outperform those who have goals imposed on them. Give your child the freedom to set his/her own goals. The more a child has control over their own goal-setting and the monitoring of these goals, the more likely the height of the goals will increase over time.
  3. Purpose – People want to know they’re contributing meaningfully to something bigger, and they want to pursue this purpose on their own terms. They need to know why they’re doing things. When they know this, they perform better. Have fewer conversations with your child about how, and more conversations about why.

Last year, The Washington Post published a great article about motivating children without rewards, punishment or fear. While the article is centred around older children, there are many excellent recommendations that can be adjusted to suit a primary-school-aged child. Enjoy the read!

- Jane Mueller, Principal