Sunday, March 11, 2007

Book Report: Punished by Rewards

I haven't written a book report in a long time, but I've been reading a lot lately, and sometimes it's hard to process and internalize a good book without doing something with it. So indulge me and if you actually read the book, let me know what you think!

Why we do what we do is complicated. How we get people to do what we want them to do is a lot less complicated. People with kids know that one way to get what you want out of them: reward them for good behavior and punish them for bad. But does this approach actually work? Alfie Kohn challenges this conventional wisdom about motivation at home, in school, and in the workplace in his 1993 book “Punished by Rewards”.

In dealing with my kids, I’ve thought about punishment and spanking in particular, and I’ve never personally been able to justify physical violence disguised as teaching. Rewards, on the other hand, are just the opposite, right? Instead of focusing on bad behavior, rewards put the emphasis on good behavior and encourage it with incentives. But Kohn points out that ultimately punishments and rewards are not opposites because they are both used to manipulate behavior artificially. This idea has sort of an ominous “Brave New World” feel to it, that the way to make people “good” is to manipulate them into doing what you want. The problem with this is that when I’m not around to manipulate anymore, then who’s going to keep them in line. Really, at the end of the day I don’t want my kids doing things or not doing things because something artificial will happen to them, good or bad.

Even more important, using rewards starts looking at things kids want not in terms of how much they enjoy them, but how they can be exploited as rewards. And I don’t want to make things that my kids are entitled to (like my love and attention, for example) to be dangled in front of their faces and made conditional “rewards” for good behavior. Ultimately, I want them to be good people because it’s the right thing to do, and because they’ll be happy.

But what really put me over the edge with rewards is that there is dramatic evidence, and lots of it, that using external (extrinsic, they call them) motivators has a lot of negative side effects, such as killing creativity and genuine interest. In one example, young writers who spent 5 minutes thinking about the kind of rewards they were promised for their work produced less creative work than students not encouraged to think about these things. In another study, 51 preschoolers were given magic markers to draw pictures. Some were told that if they drew pictures they would get a special certificate decorated with a red ribbon and a gold star. After a week or two, those given the incentive were less interested than the other kids. What’s more, these observations aren’t limited to kids. College students and workers in the workplace are subject to similar effects when controlled by external rewards, including grades and financial incentives.

There are a few things that rubbed me the wrong way about the book, like lumping “positive reinforcement” style parents in with totalitarian punisher-parents. I'm still convinced that using rewards to influence behavior is a lot better than beating your kids into submission (a sad situation for everyone involved), even though both only give you temporary obedience. And his unrelenting disapproval of rewards and punishment made me sure that this guy has never potty-trained a 3-year-old or seen a kid smack another kid for no obvious reason. This made me skeptical of any advice he had about parenting small children. But my measure of a good book isn’t how much I agree with it, but how much it makes me think. Clearly there are times that rewards and punishments are appropriate, but the in-your-face artificial consequences world we have a tendency to create puts emphasis on administering "consequences" (good or bad) and less on learning to make good choices. This book made me think a lot about how we motivate people (or create conditions that foster authentic motivation), and how we motivate ourselves.


cpc said...

I concur with your idea that sometimes to truly grasp a book that you need to "work with it" a little.

Interesting post and it has sparked an interesting debate with my wife. We have two sons now 18 and 19...... we found that the best way to build intrinsic motivation is to focus on self analysis of behavior.

Good luck with raising your children..... It is a great learning experience for all involved.

Courtney said...

This has got to be a debate that every married couple has... and I don't think anyone's fully answered it yet! Your blog cracks me up Wally!

Wally said...

thanks, cpc. we're still working up to the self-analysis, but that's definitely the goal. do you have any feel for when that starts to kick in?

cpc said...

I apologize that I have taken so long to get back to you.

As for when the self analysis kicks in, I am not certain there is a standard answer for that one.

Our oldest son certainly was able to arrive there earlier than our younger son. From the time he was about 3 or 4 he "got it". Son #2 was probably 7 or 8. I sincerely believe that whenever something happened, good or bad, we always found time to talk and analyze the why it happened, and compared it to where we "wanted" to be.

Maybe it would be better to say, we have always stressed the idea that we expect only your "personal best". When that happens, we want to reinforce the things you did to get there, and when it doesn't, what happened and why.

Son #2 has been a little more of a challenge. He came around to self analysis much slower, but lately has been much more successful in obtaining his personal and professional goals. #1 is better at the analysis, but sometimes lacks the courage to make the changes he knows he needs to make.

The bottom line.... they are both pretty good kids, who have good days and bad days.... but the thing I think sets them apart, is their ability to take personal responsibility for their actions. From the time they were little, I have stressed that concept by asking them "who decides"?

Of course I am a little prejudiced, but I think both of them will be successful.

I enjoy your blog a great deal. Keep a smile on and take great care of yourself.