Friday, August 22, 2008

Rewards as Short-Circuits

" I have a little boy, younger than you, who knows six Psalms by heart: and when you ask him which he would rather have, a gingerbread-nut to eat, or a verse of a Psalm to learn he says: 'Oh! The verse of a Psalm! Angels sing Psalms,' says he: 'I wish to be a little angel here below;' he then gets two nuts in recompense for his infant piety." Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre.

I haven't read Alfie Kohn's Punished by Rewards, though I've heard lots about it for years -- there is an extensive book response by Marie here, and a post about a DC cash incentive in relation to Punished by Rewards, at a new blog I found courtesy of Faith.

Marie writes:

Even in the short term, numerous studies show that children and college students tend to be less interested in meeting a new learning challenge when there is a reward attached, and more interested in activities which attract them simply by the nature of the thing. He demonstrates that rewarding people for “doing good” is psychologically identical to punishing people for “doing bad” (which moderns are more likely to reject as benighted); that rewards insert alienation and resentment in the relationship between the giver and receiver of the reward; that rewards ignore the needs of the human heart (or the reasons why behavior is being exhibited that others deem in need of modification); and that rewards discourage risk-taking and creative growth.
I just read an interesting parallel to this in a book called Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior . My husband requested the book from the library, and I accidentally read it before he even got to see it had arrived, being irresistibly pulled by the attraction of a new book and also behaving irrationally due to my middle-aged memory -- I thought I had requested the book, because it looked familiar and I KNEW I remembered hearing about it somewhere. It turned out I had heard about it from my husband. Anyway.... the book is a fast, breezy, interesting read, sort of like a book-length glossy-mag feature article, packed with studies and stories illustrating the ways in which people react unexpectedly due to hidden psychological factors.

In one of the chapters, called Compensation and Cocaine, the authors tell the story of an alternative school founded in 1972. It sounds like the one I went to in middle school. ... few rules, a focus on alternative methods of learning. Anyway, the school was thriving; the teachers were poorly paid, but very creative and dedicated. The school decided to take part in a pilot program to increase attendance -- which was good by general standards, but could be improved. To encourage increased attendance, the teachers who had a better than 80 % attendance rate in their classes would get a 12% increase in salary.

The results were surprising -- while the attendance rate got no better, the average GPA in the classes fell dramatically -- from 2.78 to 2.18. Without meaning to, these teachers had undergone a shift in their goals, methods and attitude because of the incentive program, even though they were idealistic types who had not sought for the cash incentive for themselves.

There are other, similar examples in the chapter. Apparently, according to the book, there are separate sections of the brain devoted to separate types of activity. When we are engaged in altruistic activity, one part of the brain lights up; but when we are engaged in reward-getting behavior -- like gambling, or doing something in return for pay -- there is another part of the brain that overrides the altruistic part. So in a study done in Switzerland, when people were asked to host a toxic waste facility near their town, 50% agreed; but when they were offered a cash bonus in an attempt to raise the number of willing people, the percentage actually fell by half to 25%. Similarly, in a study where people took the GMAT test for a cash bonus per correct answer, their average scores were actually quite a bit lower than the control group who just took the test for the purposes of the study.

This is interesting to me -- Charlotte Mason says that rewards should not be overused, though she does not condemn them wholesale. I wrote once that I thought rewards sometimes had some significance as tokens, at least. The book Sway says:

"Now, the problem isn't with rewards per se. It's only when you dangle the possibility of a reward ahead of time -- creating a quid pro quo situation -- that these destructive effects arise. An extensive review and analysis of motivation studies found that the prospect of a reward excites the pleasure center even more than the attainment of the reward itself. Taking a kid to Disneyland because she won the science fair is one thing, but telling her ahead of time, "If you enter the fair and win it, I'll take you to Disneyland" is another. It's that anticipation factor that drives the addictive behavior and suppresses the altruism center."


Stephanie said...

>>...but telling her ahead of time, "If you enter the fair and win it, I'll take you to Disneyland" is another. It's that anticipation factor that drives the addictive behavior and suppresses the altruism center."<<

Willa, you've done it again! You find the most interesting things. It's like wandering in the early summer grass outside my house, and coming upon the occasional wild strawberry to come to your blog. The grass is always nice, but the berries are really good!

Laura A said...

Willa, I started to comment here, but it was starting to get so long that I think I'm going to have to make my own post of it!

Needless to say, I agree...

lissla lissar said...

How interesting. I can see that. It's like the difficulty in training yourself to eat things you don't like- if you reward yourself, the food becomes more difficult, and the treat more desired.

Oh, yes- the cheque got here today. Thank you, and Nat is mostly sleeping better, although he's currently wailing anuish and despair about bedtime from the bedroom.

Susan L said...

This made me think of Carol Dweck's studies of praise and achievement. Praise a child for working hard rather than getting an A or doing things correctly. The one who is praised for achievement becomes afraid to take risks. He gets locked into worrying about correctness and so doesn't grow as well intellectually. Alfie Kohn has also written about this in his book What Does it Mean to Be Well Educated?. He tells of some fourth-grade teachers who were asked to teach a task. One group was told that the students must perform up to standards and do well on a test. The other group of teachers was told to facilitate their students learning. Students who had the second group of teachers learned the material better than the first group.

Interesting stuff, Willa! I had to laugh at your confusion over where you'd heard of the book, Sway. (That's the right one, isn't it-- I can't see the post here in the comment box.) That really sounds like something I would do!


Willa said...

Thank you Stephanie! Mmmm.... strawberies.

I liked your post, Laura.

Glad that the cheque arrived, thank you again for the beautiful book, and yes, I would like to email Geoff about the Tai Chi, though I ought to say that on your blog so you actually get the message : ).

I am glad I am not the only one, Susan ;-).

I just finally ordered Punished by Rewards from the library, after hearing about it again from so many sources. I like reading Alfie Kohn's articles, but he seems opinionated, and so I suppose to be honest that I have held off from reading a whole book from him because I wasn't sure I would do his ideas justice (either disagree too much or get swamped too much into his worldview).

lissla lissar said...

Hmm. I noticed what Susan wrote about praise leading to fear of failure, back in high school. I named it the Gifted Complex. A lot of the teenagers I knew (the ones who weren't academic whizzes) were terrified of having praise taken away by failing. And if everyone tells you you're so smart, why can't you do everything on your first try? Either the task must be stupid, or you must be, right?

Aargh. It's a hard thing to get over.

Willa said...

And if everyone tells you you're so smart, why can't you do everything on your first try? Either the task must be stupid, or you must be, right?

I inadvertently did this to my kids sometimes --sigh. My secondborn finally pointed out the problem with it and how it affected him, and I've tried to be more careful since.